Blogging and Copyright | The Basics
Just last week, a friend who was looking for a new WordPress template discovered a web designer using a photo of me to sell templates: now, if anyone should know better than to steal images, it should be a web designer, but the sad fact is that there are still a huge amount of people out there who either don’t understand the laws regarding copyright, or who just don’t care, which is why I thought for today’s post, it might be useful to do a quick recap on copyright, and why it matters.
Before I go any further, there’s really only one thing you need to know about copyright:
All images are automatically copyrighted.
And all pieces of writing are, too. Words and images don’t have to have a copyright mark on them, and their owner doesn’t have to have “registered” them anywhere for copyright to apply. Copyright is automatic, and while some people would argue that it helps to add watermarks etc to images (I’d disagree with that: my experience is that watermarking images doesn’t make the slightest difference: watermarks can be easily cropped or Photoshopped out, but a lot of the time the person stealing them doesn’t even bother to do that: they just use them complete with watermark…), the fact is that you don’t actually NEED to.
This post, for instance, is protected by copyright the second I hit “publish” on it, as are the images. Never, ever assume that because copyright isn’t explicitly stated on an image, or piece of text, that it doesn’t exist: it does. Always.
(Well, almost always: there is such a thing as “fair use”, which means that you ARE allowed to use certain images, under certain circumstances. ‘Fair use’ can be a bit of a grey area, though, and I’m probably not the best person to discuss it, so my best advice to you is that if you have any doubt whatsoever about the legality of using a particular image: DON’T. It’s that simple.)
With that said, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about what counts as “fair use”, and bloggers in particular are notorious for falling foul of the law, in the mistaken belief that what they’re doing is OK. Just to clear things up, then…
Linking back to the site you found the image on doesn’t make it legal to use it.
Any time I write about copyright theft, I get comments from people saying, “Oh, I’d NEVER steal images: I ALWAYS link back to the source!” This is admirable behaviour, but unfortunately it’s STILL stealing. Linking back to the place you found the image from doesn’t make it legal to use it: especially when the site you found it on isn’t actually the original source, as is often the case. Even if the site you’re linking to IS the original source of the image, that STILL doesn’t make it legal for you to take someone else’s work without their permission, so if you want to use someone’s image, the best idea is to simply ASK them first.
In most cases, they’ll probably say yes: personally I’m always thrilled if someone wants to feature one of images, and as long as they’re linking back to my site, I’ll almost always be more than happy for them to use it (Unless they’re using it commercially, in which case I feel they should expect to pay for it: if you’re going to be profiting from my work, it’s only fair that I profit from it too…).
That might not always be the case, though, and if the person does object to your use of their photo, they will be within their rights to take legal action against you – even although you linked back to them.
Crediting the owner of the image does not make it legal to use it.
This is exactly the same principle as above, but sometimes people will omit the link and just write something like: “Image source: Forever Amber”. In the eyes of the law, there’s no difference between this type of image credit and an actual link (i.e. neither makes it legal to use an image), but on a purely personal level, I think a non-linked credit is even worse, because it means people can’t even click through to see the source of the image, so there’s no benefit to the original owner at all.
A few weeks ago, I came across a Russian website which had written an article about me/my blog. From what I could make out from Google Translate (i.e. not much), the post was highly flattering, but they’d used around 40 photos of me (yes, seriously), without a single link back to my site. The author had written that the images came from “the blog Forever Amber”, so technically their readers could Google the name if they wanted to, and find me that way, but why would they, when they could see so much of my content on the site they were already on?
Adding a disclaimer does not make it legal to use someone else’s image.
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of disclaimers in sidebars/footers, saying something like, “I don’t claim to own the copyright to all of the images used: if I’ve used one of your images by mistake, please contact me for removal.”
I feel like this should go without saying, but simply acknowledging that you’ve stolen images… doesn’t make it OK to steal images. You probably think you’re doing your best here, by offering to remove copyrighted content if the owner objects, but again, this won’t stop the person taking legal action against you if they want to. Even if you remove a stolen image the second someone complains, that person still has the legal right to take action for your use of the image up until that point. (The argument here is that if you’ve been illegally using someone’s content for 100 days, the fact that you stopped doing it on day 101 doesn’t change the fact that you broke the law.)
It’s also worth noting that while you may think your disclaimer sounds reasonable, it’s actually an admission of guilt. You’re acknowledging that you don’t know where your images came from, and admitting that you’re knowingly using them without permission. Ignorance of the law is no excuse (we’ll get to that later), but actually posting a notice admitting that you’re breaking it will leave you with no defense whatsoever if someone complains. (I.e. you’ll have no chance of arguing ‘fair use’ if you have a disclaimer up which essentially says, “I steal images, but I’ll give them back if you ask me.”)
Google images is not a free image bank.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been reading someone’s blog and have seen an image with the words, ‘Source: Google Images’ underneath it. Yes, Google Images may be where you FOUND the image, but that doesn’t mean Google owns the copyright to it. (And even if it did, linking to them wouldn’t make it legal to use the image…) Google Images is purely a search engine, nothing more. When you run a search there, it actually presents you with a disclaimer stating that “images may be subject to copyright”. You’d be amazed, though, how many people ignore that, use them anyway, then say, “Oh, but I found it on Google Images, so I thought it was OK to use it! I linked back to them and everything!”
Neither is Pinterest.
Again, Pinterest is essentially a search engine: it doesn’t own the copyright to the images you find there, so putting “Source: Pinterest” as your image credit doesn’t make it legal for you to use images found there. All of those ‘Pinterest roundups’ you see on blogs? Unless the blogger has identified the copyright holder for every one of those images, and obtained permission to use them, those images are being used illegally, and the blogger could be fined or prosecuted for it.
Ignorance is no excuse.
In the vast majority of cases where I contact someone who’s stolen one of my images, the excuse is that they “didn’t realise” it belonged to me, and that they weren’t allowed to take it. I’m sure this is true – I’m always amazed (and a little bit terrified, to be honest) by the number of people who start up blogs without doing any research whatsoever about the legalities of online publishing – but legally it isn’t an excuse.
Just because you don’t understand copyright law doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to you, and saying you “didn’t realise” the image you’ve used belongs to someone else won’t stop them suing you. If you think I’m joking, spend a few minutes on Google, and you’ll find plenty of examples of bloggers who’ve been fined – sometimes thousands of pounds/dollars – for illegally using someone else’s work. You might think it doesn’t matter, but you CAN be sued over it, and it’s a mistake to assume it won’t happen to you.
Why publish online at all, if you’re worried about people stealing your work?
In the past when I’ve written about people stealing my words/images, I’ve had questions from people asking why it bothers me, and why it matters. It’s just a photo, right? If I don’t want people to steal it, why put it on the internet in the first place?
To take the last point first, I feel this kind of attitude is victim-blaming at its finest. The fact is that it is illegal to steal, and it’s NOT illegal to publish words and images online. For me, that’s all there is to it. The person who steals is the one who’s in the wrong, and to blame the victim by implying that they were somehow “asking for it” is pretty mind-blowing, really.
Yes, it’s important to be aware of the consequences of publishing online, and one of those consequences is that people might steal your work. But it’s unrealistic to tell a writer, a photographer, or anyone else who makes a living in a creative field, that if they want to protect their work, they must make sure no one ever sees it, by keeping it out of the public domain at all times.
In very simple terms, I can’t blog if I’m not “allowed” to publish my work on my blog. What am I going to do: invite you all round to my house so I can tell my stories and show you my photos in person, just in case someone decides to break the law? That’s crazy, and if we take this “if you don’t want people to steal your images, don’t post them in the first place” line of thought to its natural conclusion, we can wave goodbye to the internet as we know it.
With that said, why does it matter? How does it harm me if someone steals my photo, or copies a blog post?
A lot of people assume that image theft is essentially a victimless crime, and sometimes it is. In fact, sometimes it’s even a benefit to the blogger. For instance, if you decide to use one of my photos in a post rounding up outfits or blogs you like, and you link back to me when you do it, you’re technically infringing my copyright, but it would make no sense for me to object to your use of my precious photo. (And I wouldn’t, just for the record*. Actually, I would love you forever if you did that. Consider the waters officially muddied…)
Other times, however, it does cause issues. This blog, for instance, is my business. I make a living out of writing blog posts and publishing photos on it, which makes those words and pictures my product. I put a lot of time and effort into creating that product, and when you steal it, all of my hard work is going to benefit you, rather than me.
As a small business owner, it’s incredibly difficult to make a living from a product which is constantly being appropriated by other (often much larger) brands, and circulated without credit. I don’t write blog posts so that YOUR website can get more traffic. I don’t take photos so that YOU can sell dresses, or website templates, or whatever. So there’s an ethical issue here: as far as I’m concerned, it’s unethical to profit from someone else’s work, especially without their permission, and it calls your integrity as a businessperson into question.
In the case of the designer who used my photo to sell WordPress templates, for instance, I’d be really dubious about purchasing a template from her, because who knows what other laws she’s broken? How can you trust a web designer who either doesn’t understand the law pertaining to her business, or who just chooses to disregard it? I’d be very surprised if that person would be happy for me to take HER product (i.e. one of her templates) and just use it without giving anything in return: why should it be OK for her to use MY product in that way?
* Quick clarification: I don’t mind people using my photos (with a link) in posts in which the photo is the subject of the post (or part of it anyway. I.e. it’s a post about “outfits I liked” or “blogs I read” or whatever. I do find it a bit odd when people use photos of my face – or my shoes, or my dog, or whatever – to illustrate completely random posts. That just feels like you’re using me as a free image bank, to be honest, even if you DO link back…)
Google and duplicate content penalities.
In the case of stolen writing, there are other consequences too. Google, for instance, doesn’t like websites which contain duplicate content, and will penalise blogs which contain articles which have been reproduced on other sites. The aim of this, of course, is to reward sites which create orginal content, which is very laudable. The reality, however, is that Google will not hesitate to penalise the sites which produce original content if it finds that content being reproduced.
So, when I write an original blog post, and you copy it from me, Google will penalise us both, without recognising that I did nothing wrong. No, it’s not fair: it happens, though, and I’ve felt the wrath of Google a few times when my sites have been copied. There was a time a couple of years ago when Terry was having to work almost full-time on having copies of my blogs removed from Google: “sploggers” would hack in and copy hundreds of posts;- all of which would initially rank higher in the search results than the originals, (Again, not fair, but at the time Google had a ‘new site boost’ which meant it would rank new content above older content. Love you, Google!) thus damaging my site, damaging my revenue, and making me very bad tempered indeed.
Copying someone’s post can be really damaging, both to them AND to you. If they find out (and they WILL find out), it can also totally destroy your reputation: it’s just not worth the risk.
(This is one of the reasons I use truncated RSS feeds, by the way. I know most people assume I do it because I’m a big, click-hungry, meanie who hates my readers, but I know from bitter experience that if I switch to full feeds, there will be multiple copies of my entire blog all over the internet within a few days. Truncated feeds don’t stop the most determined of the sploggers, but they help a lot…)