When you see that funny meme, cool song lyrics on a gorgeous image, hilarious comic, or impressive shot of nature, you’re thinking only of great ways to engage with your audience, right? Not copyright infringement and how it can hurt your chamber.
It’s fine if your intent is good, right? Possibly.
You could also be getting yourself in trouble with serious copyright infringement.
It’s important to know what you can and cannot do.
Copyright law has been around since we first began putting pen to paper but in the Wild West of the internet, the application has become muddled.
Note, the law is not muddled. Law is very clear. But what we see others doing can lead us to unsavory places on the wrong side of copyright law.
As the person in charge of social media for your chamber of commerce, you are a publisher. And as a publisher, you need to be aware of publishing laws.
Ignorance of the law is not a “get out of jail free card.”
Here’s what you need to know.
What is a Copyright?
A copyright protects intellectual property of “original authorship.”
That means I can’t take one of Norma’s images and add one of Frank’s quotes and expect to retain copyright myself because I “made” the image out of two things.
Copyright doesn’t have to be a document that is registered with the Library of Congress or some formal government entity. It doesn’t need to have the copyright symbol on it either.
There is an assumed copyright that protects content creators who can prove that they created the work.
Popular sayings that are part of the vernacular are not copyrighted. Phrases such as “when it rains it pours” aren’t covered. But before you use something like that, make sure its origin isn’t a song or some other work that is copyrighted, like “Don’t worry. Be happy.”
Works that can be protected by copyright include:
- website content
- social media posts
Some copyright violators figure they can just pay for a usage license if they’re caught or they’ll just take it down. But legal teams can move beyond cease and desist requests should they chose to do so.
The maximum penalties for violating copyright is $150,000, according to Ryan Vacca a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a preeminent scholar on this evolving area of law.
When we talk about copyright infringement and the law, a lot of people will refer to “fair use” but are you protected by that? Let’s examine it more closely:
What Is Fair Use?
When it comes to copyright, you’ll often hear a term called “fair use.” Sometimes it’s referred to as “Safe Harbor.”
According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is defined as:
"The doctrine that brief excerpts of copyright material may, under certain circumstances, be quoted verbatim for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research, without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder."
Fair use takes into account four things:
- the purpose and character of the use, as mentioned in the definition above including whether the use is a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
- the nature of the original work, what type of media it is;
- the portion of the original work used in relation to the original work as a whole. For instance, one line of a 20-line song or one line of a 200-page novel;
- what effect the use has upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work, as in the case of making an image so widely available that no one wants to buy it from the photographer. (More about that under the Basic Usage Laws for Social Media section below.)
Sounds pretty understandable, right?
Here’s where it gets tricky.
So as a chamber professional, if you were “teaching” your audience something using an image as an example, you could use it with attribution and claim “fair use”, right?
Or you could use five seconds of a song in a video as long as the video was educational. Correct?
Fair use is a nebulous concept that is defined by the courts. I’m not an attorney, but I caution you when using something for “educational” purposes or others as stipulated in the fair use doctrine to be sensitive to possible issues you could have.
“Fair use” is an evolving term and your idea of education could be seen as marketing in order to get more members.
For instance, you use a song snippet in a lunch and learn session video. You see it as educational but a court may see it as a way to appeal to join.
Okay, so that’s easy enough to understand and you might promise not to use a well-known song. You’ll use royalty-free music.
But it can also be tricky with images. For example, let’s say you held a chamber event and people who attended took pictures. Maybe there was a great one of you on your friend’s social media stream and you “helped yourself” to it and posted it on the chamber page. If your friend took it, they may be perfectly happy that you liked their image enough to share.
If a professional photographer took it, you may be violating a licensing agreement and committing a copyright infringement if you repost it without permission. Celebrities like JLo, Katy Perry and LeBron James have all been hit with lawsuits over using pictures of themselves taken by another person. In these situations, claiming “fair use” did not render them in the right as interpreted by the court.
Common Misconceptions About Copyright Law as It Applies to Social Media
Most people know you shouldn’t steal other people’s words and pawn them off as your own. That’s plagiarism.
But what a lot of people don’t realize is that a good percentage of what is shared is not ours to share (without permission). Are you under any of these common misconceptions?
- “We’re just a small chamber. No copyright holder is going to come after us.”
This may be true from a “court of public opinion” ideal but it won’t help you pay the fine if they do come after you. Some copyright owners don’t care if you’re a “nice” chamber pro in America’s heartland who was just trying to put a smile on a social media user’s face. It’s still a violation of copyright law or licensing. They have the right to get paid for their content.
- “The copyright owner themselves posted it on social media. So it must be free to use.”
This is a slippery slope. When in doubt, always ask to use the image. Most people will be happy to grant permission. However, some professional photographers make a living off of their shots and they have very strict ideas about where they want to see their images.
- “But I gave them credit.”
This one is hard to grasp for most of us because it seems like we’re performing our due diligence. Giving credit to the photographer or creator does not cover you from copyright infringement. Some owners will be happy for the share and credit, others can see it as a violation of rights.
- “If I can clip it, I can post it.”
Some people like to use the clip-it feature or will save images down and post them elsewhere. Again, if it belongs to someone else and you clip it (or use Photoshop to remove watermarks), you could be in violation of the law.
- “I saw it somewhere else. I can use it. They did.“
When you were in school did you ever get punished for something a group of children did? Maybe you were the only one the teacher saw. The same can be true of using others’ content. Yes, it may have been shared over a million times but if you’re the one they catch… you’re paying the fine.
Basic Usage Laws for Social Media
First, not all content is created equally. Some forms are more heavily protected than others because of the nature of the media.
For instance, you may use a quote from a novel with attribution if it is in public domain (published before 1923 and not protected by an estate) but song lyrics, even a short snippet will get you into trouble as using a line from a song is a larger percentage of the entire work.
What media you’re using has a big effect on how much and how you can use it.
Posters of original content are granted rights by most of the social media platforms they use. For instance, Pinterest states the following:
“Your Content. Pinterest allows you to post content, including photos, comments and other materials. Anything that you post or otherwise make available on our Products is referred to as “User Content.” You retain all rights in, and are solely responsible for, the User Content you post to Pinterest.”
When you create a social media account, you agree to these terms and that means you take on the potential liability for an infringement claim.
The infringement is not open for interpretation but punishment for doing so is. That means if you use someone else’s content without permission, you are breaking copyright law.
However, there is no automatic copyright check for everything you upload. Your “violation” will have to be discovered and some content creators will appreciate your shares.
Others will not.
While we can’t give you a list of everyone posting and how they feel about content usage, we can give you a general rule to follow.
People who make money off of images will generally be less forgiving of copyright infringement than people with longer works to sell. For instance, if I am a photographer and you use my image (without permission) and I normally charge to use that image, you have just cost me a sale. Yes, you may bring me additional sales if people enjoy your post and want to purchase the image but it’s still likely I would be negatively impacted by you using something for free that I generally charge for.
On the other hand, if I’m a writer and you post a synopsis of my book with my book’s cover telling your audience you liked it I would likely be happy to have the attention because it may drive people to buy my book. (Reviews are not a violation of copyright law anyway.)
Now, let’s make things a little tricky.
For instance, Facebook terms state:
"You grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivate works of your content."
Before you begin to think you can never post again, there are some good practices you can use to ensure you aren’t committing copyright infringement in your chamber of commerce.
Best Social Media Practices for Chambers to Avoid Copyright Infringement
- Ask permission to use content owned by others.
- Remove content immediately if you are made aware that there is a copyright infringement.
- Create your own image bank. It’s personalized and it won’t get you into trouble with permissions holders.
- Use images that are royalty-free or come with a Creative Commons license.
- Don’t use paid images in a design and then use editing tools to remove a watermark. Some tools like Canva charge for certain images. And some rogue designers (or more likely people who know how to use design software but do so without being a formal designer) may use “paid” images that come with a watermark until you pay for them. They then use advanced tools to remove or cover the watermark. This is still copyright infringement.
- Embed posts instead of clipping them. While this does not fully protect you it shows you are not claiming the post as your own and you’re showcasing it in its original environment.
- Don’t assume an image you see on social media has a commercial use license. Many people create social media images from purchased images but these images often come with a single use, non-commercial license. If you share that image, you could be violating the image owners copyright.
If you take nothing else from this article, or you want a quick summary–images are going to pose the most problems. Companies like Getty Images have been know to send bills to organizations that are using their content without a license. The bills are for often for sums much higher than the original fee to purchase them.
Excellent Sources of Usable Content for Chambers
If you’ve made it this far in the article, you may be turning off your computer and swearing you’ll never post again. But not so fast. There are a lot of excellent places you can get quality content that will not get you into trouble from a copyright perspective. They include:
- Royalty-free image sites like Pixabay, StockSnap.io, Pexels, Unsplash, Flickr, and Reshot
- The Chamber Pros Content Marketing Bundles from Frank Kenny
- Your own pictures
- Paying a photographer to shoot something for you like an event (make sure you’re clear on who owns the copyright on the images)
- Images that come from sites you pay for other purposes like Hootesuite, Stencil, Shopify, or Constant Contact (some schedulers and publishing apps are now providing royalty-free images to make posting easier)
- Subscription image services or those you buy a license for. This is a pricier option than Creative Commons but you can also increase your usable image banks by subscribing to tools like Canva Pro.
Digital copyright is a developing area of law and users walk a fine line between giving posters publicity for their content and violating a copyright holder’s usage rights. In situations like this, it’s often best to practice safety. Ask to use the content.
But when in doubt, leave it out.
There are plenty of ways to paraphrase or create your own content with similar looks to achieve the results you want without breaking the law.