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The Content Marketer's Guide to Copyright Law and the Internet

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Updated By: Travis McGinnis on Wed, Jul 25, 2018

I’m going to preface this post by saying I am not a lawyer nor have I ever played one on TV. Therefore, this is not legal advice so please don’t take it as such.

In my travels around the interwebs, I’ve done a lot of research about what is and is not legal in terms of content creation. I even wrote our own policy here at Leighton Enterprises and we had our lawyers review it just in case. They did sign off on it, so my research findings were sound.

As a marketer, you’ve likely come across a question or two about legality with your online content. If you haven’t, then you have not been in the business long enough.

I’m going to break this down into three sections: Copy for Blogs and Web Pages, Use of Images, and Use of Audio/Video.

You’ll find the laws are fairly common across all three, but there are slight variances.

Copyright Laws for Website Content & Blog Posts

The biggest problem you’ll run into here can be summed up in one word: plagiarism. I bet you never thought you’d hear that word again! Plagiarism isn’t just for term papers in high school. It’s a big problem and an even bigger liability.

According to plagiarism.org, at its simplest definition:

Plagiarism is an act of fraud. It involves both stealing someone else's work and lying about it afterward.


Tips for Preventing Plagiarism in your Content Marketing Efforts

Cite Your Sources.

Formal research paper source citations need to follow a specific format. However, for informal copy, such as blogs and webpages, a link to the source should suffice. You can place that link inline or create a list of sources at the bottom of your copy and link to each. I prefer my links to be inline as I discuss the topic at hand.

Give Credit Where Credit is Due.

If you feel the original author said it best, go ahead and use a direct quote. Just make sure to link over to the source and use the author’s name and organization if applicable. Make sure to wrap it in quotes. If it is of substantial length, then reduce the font size and indent it on the page. This makes it clear the content is from someone else and you’re not trying to pass it off as your own.

Just be cautious you’re not using the “heart of the work” in your direct quote. The “heart of the work” is what the piece is really all about. If you quote the one passage that sums up the entire thing, that’s the heart of the work. Don’t do that.

Paraphrase whenever possible.

This is relatively easy. You’re just taking what someone else said and rephrasing it in your own words. Again, be careful here. Your paraphrase can’t change the original meaning of the passage. Also, be sure to cite your source via an inline link at the very least.

Images & Photography

Oh images. The bane of every blogger’s existence. Did you know that just by taking a photo, you automatically own the copyright for it? The same applies to written words and audio/video recordings too. You don’t actually need to register a copyright in order for it to be valid.

Therefore, you can’t simply go to Google Images and grab anything that fits your content. That’s stealing. Google is not a repository of free stock photos. They’re an index of (mostly) copyrighted photos that you must get permission to use.

That said, I’m going to make this very easy for you: get a subscription to a stock photo website. That’s the only sure fire way to avoid infringing on someone’s copyright.

This copyright infographic from Pikwizard nicely sums up the dangers of using images irresponsibly.

Copyright Law and Online Images Infographic

Copyright Law & Stock Photos

When it comes to stock photos, make sure you’re using Royalty Free images, not Editorial Images. Royalty Free images are the stock photos you see used online. They’re free to use without paying a royalty, hence “Royalty Free.” Editorial images are images of celebrities and brands that someone owns the copyright for. Generally speaking, only news outlets and some blogs can use Editorial Images in their content.

The subscription costs vary per site, so find the one where the cost and number of images allowed per month meets your needs. Also, please read the terms of use. Those outline how many seats (people) can use your account, plus some other important fine print you don’t want to overlook.

For list of stock photo sites, just do a Google Search for stock photos and you’ll get dozens of results.

Alternatively, you can look for Creative Commons Licensed Images on Flickr.

Use of Audio/Video

Sites like YouTube, Vimeo, and TED Talks have made it very easy to grab a video and use it. When you embed a video from one of those sites, you’re going to be pretty safe. Those sites have strict rules regarding copyright that uploaders must adhere to.

What if you want to use a video or audio clip in your own custom video or audio production?

That’s where things get tricky. Many of those stock photo websites also deal in stock video for just that purpose. The use of a Hollywood Movie clip or soundbite might fit great, but it’s still copyright infringement. You need to get permission from the copyright holder.

The same applies for any video/audio clip. Contact the copyright holder and ask permission.

And no, there's no such thing as the "seven second rule," either. That was a myth perpetuated by those looking for an excuse to illegally use audio or video clips in their works. In a nutshell, the Seven Second Rule states that as long as the length of the audio or video clip is less than seven seconds, then you're good to go.

In copyright law, the one thing that even comes close to resembling the seven second rule is the de minimis defense. This comes from the legal term "de minimis non curat lex" which translates to "the law does not concern itself with trifles." Essentially, it's only seven seconds long, so who cares!? Well, the courts care. That's who.

What about Fair Use?

Fair Use Doctrine is a portion of the US Copyright Law that makes it legal to use someone else’s copyrighted work without their permission. It looks at four factors:

  1. How the work is being used. If your use is for nonprofit and/or educational purposes, it is more likely to be considered fair.
  2. More creative works (books, movies, songs, paintings, etc) are less likely to support a fair use claim than a factual work, like a research or news article.
  3. Both the quantity and quality of the use is examined. If your use takes a large portion of the copyrighted material, it'll be much less likely to be considered fair use. This is the "heart of the work" I referred to above.
  4. Does your use impact the copyright holders ability to profit from the original work? If so, then your use is not likely going to be valid.

Every fair use claim is different, but the first factor is typically the most important. Fair Use is not an excuse and will not prevent you from getting sued. Fair Use is a defense in case you get sued. Only a judge can determine if your use was in fact, fair.

Unless you’re a news outlet, non-profit organization, or an educational institution, I can almost guarantee that Fair Use doesn’t apply to your circumstance.


If I could sum up this entire post in a Tweet, it would be this:

If you didn’t create it, get permission before using it.

This is one area were “shoot first, ask questions later” will only bring you pain and suffering under the long arm of the law. Copyright lawyers are ruthless. There's no such thing as a cease and desist letter from an attorney. If you violate copyright and the wrong person finds it, expect a formal letter demanding damages paid and the offending material removed post haste.

All it takes is a simple email to the author or creator of what you want to use. Explain why you want to use it, how it fits with your content, and what piece of their work you want to use. It would also be a good idea to indicate how long you plan to use their work for. The worst they can do is say no. Which is much better than what would happen if you used their work without permission and then got sued. Just make sure to document any and all correspondence with a copyright holder and hang onto it until your use of their works is done.

You don’t need to ask for permission to quote someone else’s blog as long as you follow my advice above. For images and audio/video, most definitely ask for permission.

It really is that simple. There is risk involved with posting anything online that you didn’t create yourself. If it came from someone else’s brain, you run a risk of infringing on their copyright. The idea is to mitigate that risk as much as possible.

The tips I’ve given you above can help you do just that.

Resources for further reading on copyright law for content marketers:

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Travis McGinnis

About The Author

Travis McGinnis

I’m passionate about making things happen for our clients, thus generating real and quantifiable results. As the Technical Marketing Manger, I have the joy to touch nearly every aspect of our clients’ inbound marketing efforts. From social media, to blogging, to PPC to lead nurturing, and email marketing. I love generating new ideas and then watching them come to life. In my free time, I brew my own beer with my dad and brother, play with my kids, go on dates with my wife and occasionally get a little gaming in.

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