What do you know about copyright? (Part I)

Copyright This blog post is copyrighted.

I didn’t fill in a form. I didn’t register anywhere. But the moment I started typing and putting these words into a new order, thought up by me, my words became copyrighted.

Because this blog post is copyrighted, I own it. If you want to use it, you have to ask permission. I might ask you for payment. I might say no. If I say yes, I have a right to be identified as the author of those words, when you use them (though I may choose to waive that right, for example, if you pay me more). 

In the same way my computer is my physical property, my words and pictures are my intellectual property. I own them. If you take them without permission, it’s theft. And make no mistake, it’s illegal. That's why you should care about copyright.

In reality, you’re probably not going to find the riot squad over your bed tomorrow morning with assault weapons, just because you reprinted one of my articles or photos without asking. But you might find a retrospective bill for £5,000 on the doorstep – which is exactly what happened to thousands of website owners who inadvertently used unlicensed images owned by Getty and Corbis, two of the world’s biggest picture agencies.

Some people reckon copyright doesn’t exist on the Internet. That it’s old-fashioned, or not really in the ‘spirit’ of the digital age. Friends, those are STUPID people. When you meet them, give them a quick slap round the head, just for me, will you? If there was no copyright, if you could just take anything you fancied, whenever you chose, there would be nobody left to pay the money that funds the great content in the first place.

The good news is that it’s pretty simple to ensure you're not infringing someone's copyright.

Don’t take photographs from Google Image Search (somebody, somewhere owns them). If you're doing this right now? Stop it. There's no need.

Instead, use images from stock libraries like iStockphoto and Flickr, and search specifically for ‘copyright free’ or ‘creative commons licensed’ images where the owners have given permission for them to be used freely, usually on the condition that they are credited as the image owner. Or use your own photos. Or use PR photographs, which are issued by companies to accompany press releases, and are usually copyright free. Or – random idea – if you're reviewing a film or toy or bedding range, ask the company to send you a picture.

If someone writes a blog post that inspires you to write a follow-up post, you might want to quote the original post. If you're reviewing a song, or film, or book, you might want to use quotes or clips in your review to illustrate your points. This is allowed under a part of copyright law known as 'fair dealing'.

Fair dealing means you quote as much of the work as it necessary to prove your point – and no more. You should credit the original author, and what you use shouldn’t prevent them from subsequently selling or licensing their work to someone else in future, if they want to. Never, ever, simply re-post someone’s work in its entirety, even if you credit them.

If you’re embedding photos, videos or images on your site, be very careful indeed. Don’t ever remove digital or visual watermarks on photos, even if they are right across someone’s face. If you’re using a video, use the ‘embed’ code the site provides, rather than copying the video and running it on your own site. If in doubt, drop someone a quick email asking permission for what you want to do. If you’re on the level, they’ll almost certainly say yes. 

Coming next: Part II: How to protect your copyright.


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. JS
    13th March 2010 / 2:26 pm

    How to be people like Getty enforce it? I see you say they have sent people demands but there must be hundreds of thousands of blogs out there, and countless other websites. They go checking on every single one can they? New ones appear every day.

  2. JS
    13th March 2010 / 2:27 pm

    God, that was diabolical. Anyone can copy that if they like. It SHOULD have read…
    How DO be people like Getty enforce it? I see you say they have sent people demands but there must be hundreds of thousands of blogs out there, and countless other websites. They CAN’T go checking on every single one can they? New ones appear every day.

  3. 13th March 2010 / 2:46 pm

    Arf. Getty and Corbis can and do employ people to check the Internet looking for illegal use of their images. Sometimes I’ll be researching an article and I turn up something I’ve written before, in a publication I know fine well I didn’t sell it to. You can get caught. You probably won’t, but you might. What you’ve got to ask yourself is: do you feel lucky?

  4. 13th March 2010 / 2:51 pm

    Very helpful article, thanks Sally. Will be a bit more careful about where I get my images from. The Microsoft online clip art gallery copyright free too, not amazing but I get quite a few pictures from there.

  5. 13th March 2010 / 5:00 pm

    An excellent post Sally, and some great info. Thank you.

  6. 13th March 2010 / 5:07 pm

    A really REALLY useful site is http://www.copyscape.com/. You just put in either the text or the URL of the page you want to check, and it will let you know anywhere on the web that contains those words – is invaluable for checking every now and then.
    I’m actually pretty savvy on this as the Photography world is rife with copyright theft, but so many people have no clue. I’ll not hop up on the image theft ranty soapbox though – just thought you might like to know about copyscape 🙂

  7. 13th March 2010 / 5:39 pm

    Thanks Sally, I am learning a lot from this and the libel post. So even if you take a image of google images and quote where you got it, is that not OK? Or is it the fact it could of already be taken and copied already?

  8. 13th March 2010 / 7:13 pm

    Nat, no, that’s still breaching copyright, unfortunately. The only way to be sure you’re using images properly is to restrict your blog to copyright-free and creative commons images, or PR shots.

  9. Jordan
    13th March 2010 / 7:20 pm

    As a new blogger, i take note!

  10. 13th March 2010 / 7:31 pm

    Again, another helpful post.
    Can I add that you do need to be careful with images that you take yourself. Generally people are OK with it, but there are a few other things; pictures of other peoples kids without permission a no- no, and in particular the thing that we come across at work a lot- pictures of objects/ or of historic street scenes, postcards. Lots and lots of issues.
    For example, a few years ago someone came into the place I work, which at the time had a very strict no photography policy. They took a really rubbish picture of an object in our gallery which was identifiably ours (and actually identified as), lets say we had a good case against that person if we wanted to pursue it. I know of lots of other cases where images have been reproduced without permission of iconic objects albeit innocently taken, which have lead the publishers into trouble.
    We have a nightmare trying to produce panels for exhibitions as its actually very hard to source good copyright free images.
    To get an idea just check out the British Museum copyright page (they are not alone) http://www.ancientindia.co.uk/copy.html
    Copyright and moral rights are such a nightmare area. One thing I use all the time is this website http://www.collectionslink.org.uk/get_to_grips_with_copyright
    I look forward to hearing part 2 🙂

  11. 13th March 2010 / 7:32 pm

    So, if a PR has sent an email on something with a picture with Getty Images watermarked on it, is it okay to use or not? I’m guessing probably not, then, from this. THANK YOU for this article. I will stick with the slightly shonky pictures I take myself, I think 😉

  12. 13th March 2010 / 7:43 pm

    You’re right that a private organisation – like a museum or a concert venue – can prohibit photography on its premises. Often this is to protect their ability to make revenue from licensed photography of a place or event.
    However, as far as I’m aware, it is not in any way illegal to take photographs in a public place in the UK, irrespective of what’s going on or what I’m snapping. Providing I’m on public land, I can take whatever photo I want – even if I’m pointing the camera through your lounge window. (Hence Google being allowed to take photos for Street View)
    It’s also worth remembering there’s no legal entitlement to privacy in the UK, for adults or kids. You’re not breaking any laws taking or using photographs, again, providing you took them in a public place or on your own property.
    Many newspapers don’t use photos of kids as part of the PCC code of conduct, but it’s not a legal obligation.

  13. 13th March 2010 / 7:45 pm

    No you can’t use it, ESPECIALLY if it’s watermarked. If it’s being distributed for PR purposes, though, it shouldn’t really be watermarked. I’d be contacting the PR asking for a “print suitable” image.

  14. 13th March 2010 / 8:01 pm

    Sally, generally speaking you are right. However, if an object has rights associated with it then strictly speaking you cannot legally photograph and reproduce it without permission. Think Mona Lisa, bank notes etc.. This is another site i use at work http://www.wipo.int/sme/en/documents/ip_photography.htm
    You do need to be very careful when taking pictures in museums and galleries, for many its nothing to do with revenue, but rather that the employed photographic team do not wish to have poor quality images out there in case they become associated with them.
    You are right about being able to take pictures of peoples kids, although there are child protection issues surrounding that. As far as I know there has not been a test case, but who wants to be the first? We had a salutatory warning when we reproduced an old newspaper shot of a child (we had the copyright). The child had since died in unfortunate circumstances. It was upsetting for all involved and not something that I would wish to repeat…

  15. Carly (WADs)
    13th March 2010 / 8:05 pm

    Superb article Sally, thanks.
    And what a great website too Laura thanks.
    Carly x

  16. 13th March 2010 / 8:27 pm

    Of course I’m right 😉
    Seriously, yes, any artistic work is copyrighted, and you need to be careful. A sculpture is protected in the same way as my words and photos.
    But let’s not jump on the “oh, you can’t take photos of kids anywhere” bandwagon. And really, let’s not jump on the “you can’t take photos of a bridge” bandwagon.
    As a journo, I get a bit ranty about this but the reality is this: there is no privacy law in the UK for children OR adults.
    Providing you are on public property, you can take a photograph of any individual or object you choose and publish it, and unless I’m using surreptitious means to take photos of you on private property, that’s totally legit.
    People do not enjoy IP rights – so I can take a photo of you and publish it if I choose, and your only cause for action would be if I used the photo to perhaps libel you (by putting it in a BNP recruitment poster, say) or if I took the photo and you were wearing something subject to copyright (such as a theatrical costume).
    That’s not to say there aren’t moral consideration and professional codes to think about. I wouldn’t personally use a picture of a child I didn’t know, without securing consent from a parent or guardian. But let’s not confuse morality and legality.

  17. 13th March 2010 / 10:58 pm

    Great article.
    I completely agree, there is no restriction on taking photos of people or places on public land, unless the police stop you for national security reasons!
    In particular I get mad when people insist you can’t take photos of your kids at their school play or the like because you might take a photo of someone else too – ridiculous!
    There is no right of privacy. But…
    There is an issue of data protection. A photo of a person can be (although isn’t necessarily) “personal data” about that person, and subject therefore to the Data Protection Act 1998. That’s how Naomi Campbell took action against the publication of photos of her.
    As such, there are limits on how that photo can be used, unless you are talking about solely personal use. Most importantly, you should use it fairly and lawfully – not a terribly onerous restriction.
    That wouldn’t be the case for a crowd shot or the like, but if one person is the focus of a photo and the accompanying story relates to them, this starts to become more likely.
    But I agree, yes, really we are in the realms of morality/professionalism, rather than legality.
    And just in case anyone is interested, there has been a test case about piccies of kids – JK Rowling. She lost.

  18. 13th March 2010 / 11:42 pm

    Hi Bumbling
    Great comment but I think the Campbell case was more about human rights. Didn’t Campbell claim EU law gave her the right to private and family life, while the paper claimed the same law also guaranteed freedom of expression?
    If I read the judgment right, it was decided that because the story might have compromised Campbell’s treatment and recovery, her human rights had been breached, which was why she won.
    With data protection, again only as I understand it, but it’s unlikely a photo constitutes personal data in the UK, where the act applies to data only where an individual “can be identified from information in the possession of the controller or likely to come into his possession”.
    A photograph, without any supplementary information, doesn’t meet this criteria. And even if it did, there is an exemption in the act for any data that is being published for journalistic, artistic or literary purposes – which would include blogs (the interpretation is slightly different in other EU states, which means photos do constitute personal data in some countries).
    That doesn’t mean a photograph is immune to any or all legal action. Even if you publish a photograph legally someone could still claim damages if they cause loss or distress due to its publication. And, of course, you can libel someone in a photograph just as easily as you can in print.
    My view, though, is that for 99.9% of bloggers reading this article it’s a heck of a lot safer to use your own shots online than to risk nicking an image from Google or a newspaper website.
    Personally, I’d say don’t get caught up in concerns about data protection or privacy or libel – just use your common sense, and if a picture seems like it’s invasive or might upset someone, choose the next one in your roll instead.
    Even if you’re legally able to do something doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Let’s face it, the picture editors choosing those photos of the Rowling kids, or the shots of Naomi Campbell coming out of AA had a fair idea that what they were doing might be a teeny bit controversial!

  19. 14th March 2010 / 10:55 pm

    Before I say anything else and bore everyone to tears – your last point is the key one. Use your common sense. Only use images if you took yourself or the person who took them says its OK. Don’t use photos of individuals and identify them unless you have checked they’re OK with that.
    In case anyone is interested in the legal detail…
    My recollection – and it’s been a while since I read the case – Campbell did bring a claim based on the DPA (which ultimately failed) and breach of confidence because you can’t bring a claim based on the Human Rights Act/Convention against a private company directly – you have to have another basis for the claim, which then has to be interpreted in light of the convention. Joy.
    In my humble opinion, though, I do think that a photo can be personal data. The fundamental part is the part (b) from the following “data which relate to a living individual who can be identified (a)from those data, or
    (b)from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller”
    If as the person who posts the photo, and therefore the controller, you know who the person is, that person can be identified. It doesn’t matter that you don’t post the supplementary information – it matters that you as controller had it, and yet still used the photo.
    However, none of that means it’s not OK to use it – the DPA barely prohibits any use of personal data – just imposes some minimal restrictions so people know when their data is being bandied about.
    There are also journalistic and domestic exemptions from aspects of the DPA which many bloggers would be able to rely on anyhow.
    All very academic – sorry! First para is the only one you need to read…