Every day content creators invest their time, energy, and creativity into generating and publishing millions of original works online. In the time it takes for a person to copy and paste, those works can be taken out of the creator’s control and passed off as the creative labors of another. Understanding the scope of rights granted to copyright owners is the first step in protecting your works online, and can also help you avoid infringing on other creators’ rights.
Protecting Your Works:
Copyright protection is as equally broad for online content as it is for non-digital content; to qualify for copyright protection, the law requires an original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Blogs, website designs, e-books, videos, and graphics are just a few examples of protectable digital works. Copyright is automatic; the moment you create a work, you own the copyright. You do not need to register your work or include a copyright notice to have copyright protection.
As a copyright owner, you have a number of exclusive rights to your works. These include the right to:
- Reproduce your work;
- Prepare derivative works;
- Distribute your work;
- Publicly display your work;
- Publicly perform your work; and
- In the case of sound recordings, publicly perform the work by means of digital audio transmission.
This means that before anybody uses your work in any of the above ways, they must first get your permission to do so. This prohibition on copying is not just limited to exact copies of your whole works—a third party does not have to copy every single word or pixel of your work to be infringing—it also extends to works that are substantially similar to your own.
Tip #1: Make it clear that you are the copyright owner.
An important step in protecting your online content is letting others know that the particular work you have placed online is your own. Works no longer need to have a copyright notice to qualify for copyright protection, but by affixing a notice to a work, a copyright owner lets others know that the work is protected by copyright and the content creator is the owner of that copyrighted work. Subsequently, third parties can clearly see whom they must seek permission from if they wish to use the work.
Notice may be designated by the use of the “©” symbol, the word “Copyright”, or the abbreviation “Copr.”, followed by the copyright owner’s name and the year of the publication of the work. In addition to this information, it may be beneficial to provide an easy way for third parties to contact you for the purposes of asking permission to use your works.
Tip #2: Let others know what they can or can’t do with the work.
As we mentioned before, copyright owners have exclusive rights in their works. Under the traditional copyright framework, a copyright owner reserves all rights in his or her work, allowing third party use only through individual permission or statutory exceptions, such as fair use. One easy way to communicate this information is through the use of a disclaimer. A disclaimer can be placed on the website where the content appears, and will notify others that your work is protected and should not be used without the creator’s permission.
Beyond the traditional copyright framework, however, content creators can also control how their works are used through the use of a Creative Commons license. You can choose from several different Creative Commons licenses that allow others to use your work under certain conditions —commercial, noncommercial, derivative works allowed, etc. — without additional permission, and let others know of the conditions through the use of an online-generated badge. See our page about Creative Commons for more information, including the licensing options available for content creators.
Tip #3: Monitor your work.
Notices, disclaimers, or easy licensing avenues will not be enough to deter all potential infringers. This is why it is important to monitor your work. In addition to the routine manual checking you may be doing on your own, such as through Google or Twitter, there are a number of online tools that can help in this process. For suggestions on monitoring tools available to content creators, and a comprehensive discussion on protecting your blog content, check out Awesomely Luvvie’s blog post, “How to Protect Your Blog Content: Know Your Rights”.
Tip #4: Enforce the rights you have.
So what do you do when you discover that another person has copied your content? You have a number of options, the first of which involves directly approaching the alleged infringer to ask them to remove the content and/or providing information on how they may use your content (you may ask for appropriate citation of your material or a fee for the use). Contact information may be found on the infringing website, or in some cases may be found by searching WHOIS and reviewing the registrant information. If you are unable to determine the author of the infringing work, you may contact the website service provider or webhosting company. Once again, you may search WHOIS to find contact information on the service provider or web hosting company.
Under the DMCA safe harbor provisions, the webhosting company or service provider may have a defense against your claim of infringement, so long as it expeditiously removes the infringing material upon receiving a proper takedown notice from you. To be effective, a takedown notice must be sent to the registered agent of the service provider or webhosting company you wish to contact. This information may be found through the U.S. Copyright Office’s directory of service provider agents.
Many website service providers (such as YouTube) have explicit copyright removal procedures in place, making it easy for you to file a proper DMCA takedown notice. If notice forms are not provided, you may file a notice on your own, so long the notice includes the following elements:
- Your physical or electronic signature;
- Identification of the copyrighted work;
- Identification of the allegedly infringing material (with enough information that the service provider can find the material);
- Your contact information;
- A “good faith” statement that you believe use of the material is not authorized by law; and
- A statement that the information you have included is accurate, to the best of your knowledge.
Finally, if you are unable to get infringing content removed or satisfactorily attributed, you may seek legal action. One important thing to keep in mind, however, is that civil actions for copyright infringement require that the work be registered with the Copyright Office.
Using the Works of Others:
When using the work of another in the creation of your own online content, you must first determine if the work itself is protected by copyright. Remember that copyright extends to original works of expression fixed in tangible mediums of expression. Copyright does not extend to ideas, facts, slogans or short phrases, or works that fall within the public domain.
If a work has copyright protection, and you are unable to rely on a statutory exception, you must seek permission from third parties to use their works. Similarly, any third party wishing to use your works must first seek your permission to use the works.
One option to avoid seeking direct permission is to utilize the work by linking to the material. If, however, linking to the source is insufficient, you must consider whether you can rely on an exception like fair use or seek permission from the copyright owner to use the work. If fair use is appropriate be sure to document your analyses of each instance where you rely on it. Permission can come from contacting the copyright owner directly, or adhering to the conditions of use they have set forth through any open licensing option such as Creative Commons. Finally, when using a work, limit your use of the work to only the amount needed to achieve your intended purpose, and attribute your sources.
 An exception to this would be a work that was created as a “work for hire.”
 A note on fair use: Under some circumstances, a third party may be able to use your work without receiving your permission. This can occur if the third party’s use of your work is determined to be a fair use. Visit our page on fair use to find more information about fair use, including tools to help determine if a use may qualify as fair.
Maria Scheid is a graduate of The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and former legal intern at the Copyright Resources Center at OSU Libraries