Recently, a relatively new member of Ecademy, one of the online communities I participate in regularly, posted an article from my About.com site in his blog without a link and proper attribution. I don’t believe that he was trying to claim authorship or doing anything malicious, but he caught some pretty heavy flak about it from other members. What he did was “wrong”, but unfortunately all too common, not because people are willfully stealing intellectual property, but because they don’t know any better.
That may seem shocking to those of you who know (or think you know) the proper care and handling of copyrighted material, but in some discussions about the topic on a couple of forums, I learned that a common sentiment about articles on the Internet was, “Spreading the articles around just helps promote the author. Why wouldn’t someone want their articles posted in discussion forums and blogs, assuming proper credit is given? It’s doing them a service.”
That may or may not be true, depending on what the author’s business model is. Ultimately, though, how you can use someone else’s writings is not your decision, it’s the author’s. Here are a few basic concepts and some resources to help you stay within the law, as well as build respectful relationships with the people whose content you find so valuable:
Blogs posts are copyrighted by default. The #1 rule to remember is that, by default, posts to a blog (or to a discussion forum, for that matter) are copyrighted material, and the author owns the copyright. Just because it’s “public” doesn’t mean it’s “public domain”. That means that it is subject to all the restrictions on copyrighted work, i.e., it can’t be freely copied and used even with proper credit without either a) the permission of the author or b) within the context of “fair use”. The owners of the site, e.g., Ecademy, may also have rights to use it as part of the user agreement, but no one else does.
Fair use is a concept that allows limited use of copyrighted material, generally for the purposes of criticism, education, satire, etc. And no the “education” umbrella doesn’t allow you to use works in their entirety. There are no hard-and-fast guidelines as to where the line is drawn, but using a work in its entirety is never allowed, whether it’s a four-line poem or a four-page article. Similarly, an entire chapter from a book would also be a copyright violation. You can use excerpts, but not “complete” anythings: chapters, articles, posts, poems, etc. You can see a quick summary of “fair use” at the U.S. Government Copyright Office or get more in-depth information at the Stanford Copyright & Fair Use Center. The Electronic Frontier Foundation provides some great legal resources for bloggers, including Bloggers’ FAQ – Intellectual Property.
There are exceptions. Sometimes, bloggers or article writers make things available for use in their entirety. This may be done through an express permission statement in the byline of the article or on the blog site’s footer, something to the effect of “This article may be reproduced in its entirety so long as this resource block is kept intact and included in the article.” Many people now use a Creative Commons license of some type to permit broader use than allowed by copyright, but still under the control of the creator.
Don’t make assumptions. You can’t assume that you know what the allowable use is of a particular post or article. For example, the content I post on my About Entrepreneurs site is all copyrighted and may not be reposted without permission. On the other hand, what my coauthor and I post on TheVirtualHandshake.com, the companion site for our book, is under a Creative Commons license and can be freely reposted with proper attribution and a link. Why the difference, you ask? Simple economics. On About.com, the revenue model is advertising-based, and I get paid based upon page views. Post the content elsewhere and I don’t get paid on it, at all. On TheVirtualHandshake.com, it’s all about positioning ourselves and promoting the book. Post the content wherever you want — if it’s any good, it eventually drives people back to us for the book and maybe more.
Proper respect for intellectual property = good networking. Good networking means learning about other people’s business. For those of us who write professionally, our content is our product. Learning about our business means learning how to properly refer people to us, just as it would for anyone else. The simplest solution is to always use an excerpt and a link, never content in its entirety. That will pretty much always constitute fair use, and will always be appreciated by the content creator.
This is not the first time this has happened to me, as you might imagine. I always approach it as a networker, not a litigant. “Are you aware that this is copyrighted material and may not be re-posted in its entirety, even with proper attribution? I’d be happy for you to use a short excerpt and a link. Please edit it as soon as possible and inform me when you have made the correction.”