Copyright Mythbusting

Written by Noel French

January 24, 2021

The Internet is awash in really bad copyright advice, and there are a few common pitfalls that get businesses and nonprofits into a lot of unnecessary trouble. Take a few minutes reading below to unlearn the bad information that can cost you thousands.

1. If You Credit the Creator, You Can Use It Without Permission

Crediting the creator of a copyrighted work is irrelevant to determining whether you are committing copyright infringement. Sometimes a copyright license will include an obligation to credit the work’s creator, but a credit does not turn infringement into non-infringement.

2. If It’s On Google/Facebook/Etc., It’s Free to Use

Stuff isn’t free just because it’s on Google (or anywhere else online). For reasons too legalistic for this post, it is not copyright infringement for Google to display an image in its image search, but it is copyright infringement for you to use it without permission. If you want to find an image to use, you should obtain a license by using a stock image site or tracking down the owner and securing their permission. Alternatively, you can try to rely on public domain or Creative Commons images.

Even if you could measure the percentage of a copyrighted work that has been changed in any meaningful way, there is no magic threshold of change to avoid copyright infringement. Whether and how a copyrighted work has been changed is one of several factors in a fair use analysis. If you use copyrighted material in a fair use, then it’s not copyright infringement, but fair use analysis is extremely complicated and cannot be stated in simple rules like a percentage of change.

Nonprofits can commit copyright infringement and can be sued for it just like anyone else. Whether or not the use of copyrighted material is for a for-profit or non-profit purpose is one factor in determining whether a use of copyrighted material is copyright infringement, so it’s easy to understand why there’s confusion.

However, whether copyright is being used for a non-profit purpose is different than whether it’s being used by a nonprofit. For instance, a nonprofit might use a famous song in a fundraising advertisement, which is a for-profit purpose by a nonprofit. Similarly, a company might play the same song at an office holiday party from someone’s record collection, which is a non-profit purpose by a for-profit business.

And to reiterate, whether a use is for a for-profit or non-profit purpose is just one factor to consider, so even use for a non-profit purpose can be copyright infringement.

As with Myth 4, lack of profitability or profit motive is not a get-out-of-copyright-infringement-free card. If you pirate a new movie and give away the movie files for free, that’s still copyright infringement even though you aren’t even trying to make money.

6. It’s Not Registered So It’s Not Copyrighted

The United States does not require registration to create copyrights. Anything that can copyrighted is automatically copyrighted as it is put down into a tangible medium. These words are copyrighted as I type them.

Registration does carry extra rights, but you can’t assume something is free to use because it isn’t registered (and whether something is registered can be difficult to determine with certainty).

Generally, whether something is labeled with the copyright symbol is irrelevant as to whether it is subject to copyrights. This may not be true of older works, but lack of a (C) symbol isn’t something you can rely on to determine something isn’t copyrighted.

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