IP for Beginners


Copyright used to seem like something only big companies had to deal with in the pre-web era, but it’s so easy to copy and use material you don’t own the rights to (even unknowingly) today that it’s become everyone’s business.

Copying, saving and sharing has become as easy as a mouse click, and while it’s probably harmless for someone to copy a photo of a cute puppy and add it to their blog, someone else might send it to their Twitter followers, one of whom is a publisher who prints it in a book, and suddenly someone’s making a commercial venture out of copyrighted material nobody knows the original owner of (and which the original owner might never find out about or benefit from).

The first thing to know about copyright that hasn’t changed in the digital age is that you don’t need to apply for or register copyright. If you create anything original – from a product design to a sentence, a song to a photo and everything in between – the law automatically attributes ownership of it to you.

The easiest way to protect it is to use the now-ubiquitous copyright symbol (©). For example, many websites have ‘terms and conditions’ or ‘legal’ pages informing visitors that all the material on the site is under copyright and can’t be re-used or reproduced without permission.

By the same token, if you fancy using something you find online, take great care. Even if there’s no copyright notice that you can see accompanying the material, you can assume someone owns the rights to it and they will need to grant you permission to use it.

Honest mistake

Copyright is a daunting issue for many people, and there’s still a perception that if it’s on the internet it’s in the public domain (i.e. you don’t need permission to use it for any private or commercial purpose).

In many cases, if your copyright has been infringed, simply making contact to ask that the violator remove or take down their use of your material will be enough to prompt an apology and immediate action.

If they’ve done so knowingly (and there are dubious operators who do so), the situation is further complicated by the global nature of the internet versus the regional nature of legal jurisdictions – legal action against a party in another country can be a costly headache.

If you use material online that’s been sourced by a third party, don’t assume everyone’s done their homework about clearing it. If you commission a developer to build your website, for example, impress upon them how important it is that any assets they source are available for use (i.e. in the public domain or paid for) – and you’re not out of line asking for proof to protect yourself.

There’s another new wrinkle in copyright that’s become more prominent in the web era. The concept of fair dealing covers the referencing or use of copyrighted material for purposes of reportage, community education or satire. So if you write a blog post about a news story online, you’re not allowed to reproduce the whole story on your site, but you’re within your rights to copy and paste a paragraph or two, with an attribution of where it came from and/or a link to the original source.

You can see the same thing with embedded video online. Services like Vimeo and YouTube make it easy to play their videos on your website by deploying a few simple lines of code. It works for them because while you’re using their player, they still get the benefits of metrics and traffic while their content enjoys wider use.

Protecting yourself

If you have material that’s particularly sensitive or critical to your business that you don’t want to risk being spread far and wide, consider releasing it in password-protected areas, or using geographic restrictions (e.g. when you try to watch a YouTube clip in Australia only to be told it’s not available in our country).

Even if you just have a business website with text and pictures, understand that everything on it is your property and you have the right to protect it. Even the © symbol at the bottom of each page is better than nothing and will give your visitors the right message.

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