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How to Avoid Copyright Infringement

Imagine you’re building a website for your newly launched seafood restaurant. You get online and find a photo of blue crabs to use on the home page. A few weeks later, a letter arrives in the mail demanding you stop using the photo and pay damages for copyright infringement to the photo’s owner. You don’t understand what’s happened, since you found the image on a popular social media site.

Each year, businesses “accidentally” commit copyright infringement that costs them thousands of dollars. Many believe that once an image or a song is published on social media, for example, it’s fair game to use. This is not the case, and copyright law protects original works even if they are posted on the internet for everyone to see.

Even large companies that should know better sometimes make this mistake. After an earthquake in 2010, Getty Images and Agence France Presse used and sold images they found on Twitter depicting the aftermath of the disaster, ultimately leading to the images being widely distributed in the media without the photographer’s permission. Photojournalist Daniel Morel sued for copyright infringement and won a $1.2 million verdict for the unauthorized use of his images.

If your business doesn’t take steps to make sure its use of copyrighted materials is properly licensed, you too could be facing a lawsuit for copyright infringement. To you avoid this outcome, we’ve put together some tips to help your business avoid copyright infringement.

What’s a copyright, anyway?

The first step to avoiding accidental infringement is recognizing materials that may be protected by copyright. A copyright is the exclusive legal right for the creator of an original work to print, publish, perform, film, record, or reproduce its original material and to authorize others to do the same. Copyright law can protect things such as paintings, photographs, musical compositions, songs, videos, and software code.

People and businesses who create original works get to control how and by whom those works can be used. They’ve put their time and energy into creating their works, and it’s only fair that those who want to use them (especially for commercial reasons) compensate the creator for the effort they’ve put in. A cloud software company, for example, does not want to invest millions into product development only to have another business copy its code and sell a competitive product. Likewise, an artist does not want a retail store to sell prints of his most renowned painting without his permission. And a photographer who makes a living selling his photographs for use on websites does not want businesses using those same photographs for free.

Why should I care?

To start, a reputable business shouldn’t want to steal or misuse someone else’s property. If that’s not enough for you, U.S. law imposes strict penalties on businesses who use copyrighted works without the owners’ permission. Statutory damages for non-willful copyright infringement range $750 to $30,000. This range extends to $150,000 if the infringement is willful. And don’t forget that the owner of a copyrighted work can choose to pursue actual damages instead of statutory damages, including the disgorgement of any profits the infringer has made from their unauthorized use of the work.

These penalties are necessary to protect the rights of authors to control and profit from their works. Creators would have no incentive to innovate and create new works without a mechanism to protect their ownership in those works.

What can I do?

Now that you know more about copyright infringement, you might be wondering what your business can do to avoid accidental infringement. Here are some tips you follow:

1. Treat Every Work Like It Has Copyright Protection

Not every copyrighted work will have a copyright notice or symbol. This makes it that much harder to easily identify copyrighted materials. Treat every work as if it is copyrighted, unless otherwise specified. Stay on the cautious side when using images, song clips, or other materials that are not your original creation.

2. Acquire Licenses From Copyright Owners

If you want to use a song clip, movie clip, or image to promote your business, obtain a license to do so from the owner of the work. In many cases, a license to use copyrighted material is relatively inexpensive. Sometimes the owner’s only request is that they be credited as the work’s author. Obtaining a license is not only the right thing to do but also could save you heaps of money in legal and settlement fees.

3. Consider Using Public Domain or Royalty-Free Materials

Copyright protection doesn’t last forever. When copyright protection ends, works enter the public domain and can be used without permission. You can also find stock photos and royalty-free music online that have been made available for commercial use, such as those available under some Creative Commons licenses. Make sure you check the terms of the license before using these items to make sure that business use is allowed.

4. Watch Third-Party Service Providers

Many businesses benefit from the use of third-party service providers such as web designers and ad agencies. You can protect yourself from infringement that they might commit by thoroughly vetting them to make sure they have a solid reputation and have not had issues with infringement in the past. You should also have a solid indemnification provision in your services contract. A good indemnification clause requires the service provider to pay for any costs and damages that you incur because of their unauthorized use of intellectual property.

It’s never a bad idea to consult with a professional experienced in copyright law if you’re not sure whether use of a work is permissible. Having a good business lawyer on your team can help you stay on track with licensing agreements and services contracts to make sure your business stays protected.


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