Copyright on the Web

The Problem

Copyright on the web has always been an area for much debate. The likes of Napster and You Tube are well known for being involved in large legal battles over the alleged breach of copyright of materials they supply. The average businesses understanding of the laws regarding copyright are on the whole pretty vague. As a website owner you probably think you are pretty safe but here at Duo we increasingly hear about legal action being taken against website owners.

Small businesses in many ways are financially, very fragile. Receiving a threatening letter telling you to remove content, combined with a very large invoice for your use of the material so far, could very quickly put you in financial  trouble and possibly out of business. This may seem like an improbable occurrence; however, we have received phone calls from companies seeking advice that are in this position right now. In most of the cases we have heard of, the problems usually relate to images.

Image search engines - ie Google images, Alta vista Images etc.. make it possible to search for images on the web. What many people don't understand; is you can't just copy these images to your own site, and continue to use them. Although technically this is very easy, legally it is very unsound. Copyright is one of the few protections of intellectual property which is assigned by default. If someone else created 'something' and you copy it without their express permission, they are in a position to take legal action against you. At best, they'll ask you to remove the offending article, at worst you could end up in court.

But They'll Never Find Out!

When you tell people about breaching copyright, the belief is that the person who's material has been stolen will never find out. Images can be, and are often given, what is known as an electronic watermark . This watermark is information regarding the owner and creator of the content. This information is encoded into the file, image manipulation will probably not remove this information so with all the modification in the world the owner will still be able to check for this. But who's going to sit looking at the Internet all day looking for misuse of their material? Well no one. But they don't have to. The same technology that search engines use to scan the Internet, copyright owners can use to scan for their material. If they licence their images for use on specific websites (as in the case of some image libraries), it is very easy for them to scan the web, cross reference the use of their images against their licenced use database and they end up with a very big list of people to sue.

As web designers we are very conscious of the ownership of content. Our clients - who can update their own sites - have needed to be instructed in the past, to play it very safe when it comes to the use of content on their sites. Thankfully our advice has helped them avoid problems.

How to Avoid Problems

Avoiding problems on your website is easier than you may think. There are countless suppliers of low cost image and flash content out there and buying such content is pretty straight forward. The basic rules you should apply to everything you add to your website (and all other materials for that matter) are

  1. Did I create this myself?
  2. If I didn't create it, do I have permission or a licence to use this material?
  3. Does my licence cover this material for this use?

If your content passes these basic checks you should be ok to use it. Be aware that even bought content can be sold to you for a specific use, or for a specific number of uses. Read and understand the licences. Photographers and stock image sites commonly sell their photographic services based on a strict use licence - breach this and they still have a right to take legal action.

The following is a list of good sites who provide images at very reasonable prices (typically for as little as $1 USD).