FAQs: Copyright Guidelines for Content Creators


This is by far my most-requested article — so much so that I’ve been updating it since 2012. While platforms have changed a lot, it’s still important to understand and respect the basic rules of copyright. Disclaimer #1: Fortunately for the justice system, my lifelong addiction to courtroom dramas does not qualify me to practice law. But like all citizens I’m required to abide by laws, and it is in that context that I share this information. If you need legal advice on these issues, seek out an attorney.

When you first launch your website, blog, Instagram, YouTube channel, or Twitter feed, it’s an exciting moment. You can’t wait to fill your new forum with your original content. You have so many ideas! You’ll never run out of things you want to post…or enthusiasm for posting them.
After a while, though, that forum starts to feel like a gigantic bucket with a hole in the bottom. No matter how much stuff you put into it, you still need more—to attract new visitors, to keep your audiences engaged, and to maintain your stellar search rankings. It’s when feeling that pressure to publish that a lot of people start asking this question:

1. Can I re-use content I find on the Internet?

The short answer is: probably not. Copyright law is a muddle of “if…then” statements and rules that apply on a case-by-case basis. (If you’re interested in a detailed explanation, many college and university websites have excellent in-depth guidelines, like this one at Purdue, and this one at Northwestern University.) But sensible rules for copyright practice are a lot easier to absorb and use. Here are the guidelines that we give to our clients.

Your High School Teacher Is Still Right, Even On The Internet

One of the biggest misconceptions about the Web is that copyright rules are different here than they are in print. They are not. In fact, most of the text, images, video, and music that you’ll find on the Web are copyrighted, which makes the rules for web content not much different than the rules you had to follow for writing a term paper. (The good news is that you almost never have to write a bibliography.)

2. How can I legally use text from other sources?

Quote text, don’t steal it. When it comes to quoted text, you can’t go wrong by using the same guidelines used by The Huffington Post. They’ve been through the copyright wars, and have developed a set of standards that work well and that are easy to follow.

  • Use quoted text as a basis of, or adjunct to, original content. In other words, if you see something on the Web that’s relevant to your audience, write a fresh article about it—don’t just copy and paste.
  • Keep quotes short—no more than a few lines each. On The HuffPost website, their longest uninterrupted quote is the equivalent of one long or two medium paragraphs.
  • Make quoted text obvious. The HuffPost indents quoted text and puts it in a box with a background color. You can pick any style that goes with your publication’s layout or branding. Just be consistent and use that style only for quoted text.
  • Include attributes for every quote, with a link to the original source material whenever available.
  • As hundreds of sued bloggers have learned, you should absolutely never copy and paste whole articles, posts, or long portions of articles or other content. Providing attribution for borrowed content will not protect you.

Nor should you channel your inner fifth-grader and rewrite portions of articles, content, or other found material as your own. Even on the Internet, that’s still plagiarism. In the last few years, a number of online and print journalists, at least one bestselling novelist, and a famous historian, have all succumbed to sloppiness or temptation and did this, some “borrowing” and rephrasing only a few paragraphs of text. All experienced serious and very public damage to their careers. In 2010, in a scandalous and fascinating story, Cooks Source Magazine was basically destroyed when their long and shameless history of stealing Web content came to light over a single pilfered article about a medieval apple-pie recipe.

If you’re inspired by something you read online, write you own spin or commentary on it, and reference the original. You see this all the time in online news magazines and the blogs and columns of professional websites, like Advertising Age. You can gracefully (and legally) reference the original by saying something like this: “James T. Kirk’s excellent article in Starships Today got me thinking: Are we really ready for the next generation of warp drives?”

3. How can I legally use images from other sources?

The rule of thumb for images is even simpler than the rules for text: Don’t use any image unless you have the rights to use it. This includes photographs, illustrations, maps, graphic buttons, bugs, and other artwork.

The reason for caution is that a simple image can have many layers of ownership. Let’s say you find a photo of a celebrity that you’d love to use on your website. Here’s who might have usage rights over it, and/or the ability to grant rights:

  • The subject, or, if the subject is deceased, the subject’s heirs or estate
  • The photographer
  • The entity that commissioned the photograph. For example, a magazine, newspaper, movie studio, advertising company, etc.
  • A stock photo agency contracted to manage the image. Getty Images and Shutterstockare two stock photo houses that license editorial images.

You don’t want to tangle with all those who have a vested interest in protecting their work—and protect it they do. In fact, when it comes to images, not much is in the public domain. Even works that you think might be safe usually are not.

Take the Mona Lisa, for example. Da Vinci died almost 500 years ago, long before the invention of copyright law. What could be more in the public domain than that? You’d think you could use that image with impunity. And you’d be right, to a certain degree. That’s why you see it on everything from coffee mugs to mobile phone covers to the seats of folding chairs (I don’t really get that last one, but, whatever).

The image itself is in the public domain. But a new work derived from the Mona Lisa—including a new photograph of it— is probably not in the public domain. Copyright of that particular photograph belongs to that photographer (and/or to the museum that commissioned it), and you might need permission to use it.

4. Once I have rights, can I use images for any purpose or medium?

No. When you commission a photograph or illustration, or buy a stock image, that purchase usually comes with some specific reproduction rights, but not others. These rights may range from very limited to very generous.

Limited rights might include something like the right to post a celebrity photo in editorial content on a website for a certain period of time. Extended rights may include the ability to reproduce the image in multiple media many thousands of times, and to use the image virtually forever. As you might expect, extended rights usually cost more than basic rights.iStockphoto’s licensing page is a good primer on how licenses work.

(Tip: If you’re hiring a photographer or illustrator to create original artwork for you, you’ll save money by negotiating up front for all the potential uses you’ll have later.)

5. What if I’m broke/a small business/a student/creating a personal website or blog/just starting out/not making any money/a non-profit/doing God’s work?

Sorry: The same rules apply to you, too. Some image sources may offer discounted rates for non-profits or educational purposes. It never hurts to ask.

6. What if I’m creating a parody?

Oh, well, then, knock yourself out. Mostly. Carefully. You’ve got a whole lot more leeway, as this article from the Copyright Alliance explains explains. But your use has to really be parody, and “transformative”— in that it creates something genuinely different and new out of the original idea. It doesn’t count if you’re creating ordinary content that you plan to call a parody in the event that you get a cease-and-desist letter from a copyright owner. (Interestingly, the Supreme Court gives much more leeway to parody than to satire. Maybe because satire, by its legal definition, is intended to be meaner.)

7. Give me some good news: what images can I use?

Lots of stuff:

  1. Your own original images— photos that you take, pictures that you draw. Of course, you still have to follow copyright law with regard to the subjects of the photos; that’s why reality TV shows blur out logos and brand names on T-shirts.
  2. Original images that you commission: photographs, illustrations, logos, etc.
  3. Stock images. There are many of great resources for stock photos, illustrations, animations, even videos. Some of them cost as little as $1 each; some cost hundreds of dollars. Just be sure you buy the right license for your use. The small investment is worth it, and you’ll usually have access to images that are higher quality than anything you can snag for free. On this blog, and on the C3 Advertising website, we use stock photos, original art, and commissioned illustrations.
  4. SOME images on file-sharing sites, like Flikr. Occasionally, designers, illustrators, and photographers will generously share their work under a Creative Commons or similar license. Read these licenses carefully for each image. Creative Commons and Wikimedia licenses come in several flavors, and you must abide by the rules. Some allow sharing only on the web, some only for editorial or educational purposes, some only with attribution or if you promise not to alter the work.
  5. Free stock images. I include this resource for due diligence, but with rare exceptions, you get what you pay for. You also have to be cautious about the provenance of your free image sources. You don’t want to get in trouble because somebody else lied on the Web. Not that anybody would ever lie on the web…oh, wait…nevermind.

I’ve included a lot of detail here, but the rules are actually easy to follow. Until you get the hang of it, bookmark this page as a reference. And when you’re feeling frustrated that you can’t just copy and paste to fill your online bucket, remember this: Copyright laws are a good thing, especially for you. If you’re reading this, you’re a content creator of one stripe or another. The original content you create will benefit from copyright protection, too.

Disclaimer #2: The guidelines offered here are based on our experience in following copyright law as content creators across multiple media, and in helping our clients stay compliant as they create their own content. If you have a specific copyright question or issue, contact a lawyer.


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