Copyright Laws

When is it OK to use someone else’s work?

Thanks to the Internet, today, it is not hard to get your hands on anything for which you may have a need.  Wikipedia is now recognized as a legitimate resource and Twitter has almost deemed newspapers unnecessary.  Although it has never been easier to access necessary information, it is important to keep in mind that just because something is on the Internet, doesn’t make it free for you to use.  Because of the ever-changing world of technology, I thought we could all benefit from a refresher course in Copyright laws, and what is OK for us to use.

Copyright Law Basics

The first thing to keep in mind is that copyright laws have been put in place in order to protect your intellectual property and creative works.  The second you write or create something, you own legal rights to that piece of work.  How would you like if you wrote a poem, and posted it on Facebook; then, one day you find out that someone has been making millions off of your poem, passing it off as their own.  This exact situation is why copyright laws are put into place.

Copyright law is a very detailed, complex subject.  Because every situation is different, it must be treated as such.  Copyright laws are not necessarily black and white — there are many gray areas.

At its core, the copyright law states that if something exists on the Internet, it is because someone created it.  As a creator of that item, he or she owns any intellectual property, and rights to that item.  With the exception of very few minor cases, anyone who attempts to infringe upon that right will be held legally responsible.

Of course, I did mention that there are a few minor exceptions to that rule.  Let’s dive into a few of those exceptions.

Fair Use Law

You may have heard someone claim “fair use” as an excuse to use someone else’s work as his or her own.  The truth is that “Fair Use” is in fact a legal term that does make it OK to infringe on someone else’s work.  However, there is hardly ever a situation where “fair use” is actually being used in the right context.  Contrary to popular belief, claiming “fair use” is not like waving a magic wand that makes everything legal.  Fair Use is a very complex doctrine with many loopholes and exceptions.  If you would like to attempt to tame the “Fair Use” beast, more information can be found here.

Acknowledgment Doesn’t Magically Make Everything OK

Another popular myth is that any image is fine to use, as long as you give credit to the creator.  Unfortunately, contrary to popular belief, using someone else’s work and then giving them a “shout out” is still very much illegal. Copyright laws imply that the creator has a right to choose where they want their work displayed.

In times of uncertainty, where you are not sure if you can legally use someone else’s work or not, it is always better to err on the conservative side.  If there is any doubt in your mind, simply do not use it.  It is not worth the potential lawsuit that could follow.

As you can see, when it comes to copyright, there is a lot to keep in mind.  The laws of copyright are quite lengthy, extremely detailed, and sometimes even fairly vague in its content.  Because each case is different, it can be difficult to know for sure when you may be infringing upon someone else’s rights.  Because of this, copyright laws can leave you in very dangerous territory!

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