Blogs, copyright, and keeping your nose clean - Mari Biella

If you’re reading these words, there’s a very good chance that you’re a writer. In these days of PoD, digital publishing, and free and instantly-available blogs, there’s also a good chance that you’re published in some form or another. Do you, like most writers, assert your copyright? Or do you distribute your works under the Creative Commons licence?

Image credit: Xander | Wikimedia Commons

If you assert your own copyright, do you respect other people’s? It’s a question worth thinking about. You can’t consistently both assert your copyright and flout other people’s, and yet some writers do. (If, on the other hand, you’re on a crusade against the very notion of copyright, then you can at least disregard copyright and do so consistently. For legal reasons, I don’t recommend it.)

There seem to be two basic strands of thought concerning copyright issues: 1) copyright must be respected and breach of copyright is theft; and, 2) copyright is an out-of-date and often unenforceable convention in these days of digital distribution and instant copying and sharing. The laws, after all, were written long before digital communication was even imagined. In case you’re wondering, I basically hold with opinion (1), though I also have a sneaking sympathy for opinion (2). However, regardless of opinions – and because getting into legal hot water is really not good fun – writers and bloggers should be aware of copyright issues. In reality, though, many have only a rather shaky understanding of copyright issues.

(Lest anyone think I’m being sniffy here, by the way, it’s time to make sheepish confession number one: I used to be one of their number. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on copyright law now, but I have at least a mildly better grasp of it than before. I should also add a little disclaimer at this point: I am not a lawyer, and none of what follows can be taken as legal advice. If in doubt, consult somebody who really knows his or her onions.)

Being at least vaguely au fait with copyright issues is recommended, especially for those of us who write our own blog posts or act as our own publishers. You won’t, after all, have a friendly in-house legal advisor helping you out in the pre-publication stage and making sure that you’re not invoking the dark clouds of litigation. An example: quoting song lyrics in your book? Forget it, unless you’re either a) able and willing to get permission for their use, which is generally time-consuming and costly, b) very wealthy, or c) inclined to think that being sued for copyright infringement would be a good piece of PR. Is it right that you have to jump through so many hoops or risk so much for the sake of maybe six words, possibly written decades ago, possibly by someone who will never even know that you’ve quoted them, still less be affected by it? It’s open to debate, and I have a smidgeon of sympathy for anyone asking the question ... Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be the person deciding on your fate if you got into trouble for this, and being sued probably won’t be good for your creativity or reputation, still less your finances.

Unless you look like this lady. In which case, you might just get away with it. Image credit: Stacymolugo | Wikimedia Commons

Many authors blog, and many of us use images in our blog posts. This, in general, is a good idea: a nice image can lift a post, and most SEO experts recommend adding images to blog posts. Just copying any old image from the internet and copying it into your post is an altogether less good idea, though.

(Sheepish confession number 2: I have done this myself in the past. My reasoning was as follows: my blog posts are freely available and I’m not making any money out of them; given this, the owners of the images probably wouldn’t care that they were being used on my blog; and, in any case, they’d surely never even know about it, because the internet is humongous and my blog is tiny. Wrong on all counts, as it turns out. Indeed, I recently spent an entire feverish week laboriously changing all the images on my blog. This was a long and arduous task, and many of the comments following these posts now make very little sense, but it’s got to be better than being sued.)

Most copyright holders will require payment, or at least attribution, before they allow you to reproduce their images. It doesn’t matter that you’re not making money out of them, and it doesn’t matter if your blog is miniscule and gets an average of two visitors per day. Copyright holders could still find out that you’ve been using their images without their permission – at which point, depending on their personal tolerance levels, they might either shrug wearily, or send you an email demanding that you remove the image or pay for its use, or – worst case scenario – sue you. A remote possibility, sure; but are you really willing to take that chance?

Philosophically speaking, perhaps not, but legally... Image credit: Kippelboy | Wikimedia Commons

So what’s a humble blogger with a shallow bank account to do? Luckily you’re not necessarily obliged to spend a small fortune on buying photos, as many images are either in the public domain or are distributed under the Creative Commons licence. There are several ways that you can get your hands on them. (The following is not an exhaustive list, and always check the rules so you know which type of attribution, if any, is required.)

  • The first stop for many image-hungry bloggers is Wikimedia Commons, where public domain images and images distributed under the Creative Commons licence can be downloaded and reproduced. Always check the agreement under which an image is licensed; the owner of the image may ask for attribution, and since they’re allowing you to use their work for free, it’s the least you can do in return.
  • Stock.Xchng has a large collection of free images which you can use. Attribution is often required.
  • Morgue File also offers a large selection of free images; always check whether attribution is required.
  • Photos8 provides lots of free small images for members. Attribution is usually required.
  • Flickr Creative Commons group has a wealth of photographs published under the Creative Commons license. Attribution is usually required.
  • Dreamstime, a stock photography website, also has a large bank of free, high-quality images that bloggers may reproduce. Copyright holders usually require attribution.

In short: when in doubt, assume that an image is subject to copyright. Don’t use it without the appropriate permission. Attribute when you have to. Photographers and graphic artists often make a living out of what they do, and if we all just go around helping ourselves to whatever we fancy, we’re not only breaking the law but obstructing how they want their images to be used and distributed. As writers, I think we can probably see their point of view...


JO said…
I certainly see their point of view - they've made all the effort to take the picture, etc.

I think it's also a matter of respecting others' work. If I want them to respect anything I do, the least I should do is respect theirs.
Leela said…

A really useful and informative post for the beginning of the new year Mari.

Happy New Year to all the 'Authors Electric.'
Bill Kirton said…
Wise words, Mari. A friend of mine was once faced with the 'quoting song lyrics' issue and she and I were both astonished at the huge fee being asked for just a few words. I wish my deathless prose were that valuable (but it's not, probably because I do subjunctives).
Lydia Bennet said…
Song lyrics are expensive, but you can quote a song title for nowt! What about Pinterest, where images are displayed without copyright willy nilly? Does it 'count'? Anyway thanks Mari for the helpful list of usable free images. Perhaps this post is one for our 'how to' list?
A timely reminder, In the UK at least, my understanding is that you don't have to 'assert your copyright'. You simply have it, by virtue of being the author - unless you sell it, or give it away when entering one of those competitions where they demand all rights, everywhere, until the end of time. For images I tend to use my own pics or my husband's art. I always wonder about Pinterest even though I love it and use it all the time. I can only assume that many people - me and my husband included - aren't now too bothered about permissions for these images, since they link back to the various websites and the publicity value of people sharing is immense. I suppose it's the reason why nobody minds a million people sharing images of Aiden Turner on line! There does seem to be a big split here between older professionals and the internet generation in this respect. Quoting from songs, though, is a perilous business. I first realised this when writing for radio but the BBC couldn't afford to pay for the song quotations I wanted to use. I went with traditional songs after that!
Mari Biella said…
Thanks for the comments, everyone. I too wonder about sites like Pinterest, though since I don't use it I don't really know exactly what their policy is. Quite possibly, if the image links back to the source, that counts as attribution - and as you say, Catherine, the potential in terms of publicity in such sites is striking, and probably makes it worthwhile for copyright holders. Blogs, however, are a slightly different matter. Is copyright even enforceable, in these days of copying and sharing? I don't know, but I wouldn't want to take any chances. One of my blogging acquaintances recently got into hot water for using copyrighted images without permission. It can happen!
Fran B said…
Very thought-provoking. I am currently uploading one of my novels (unpublished as yet) on to my website in instalments. I prefaced it by the usual blurb about author's rights and hoped that would be enough. Just experimenting with ways to get my work 'out there' . . .
Chris Longmuir said…
Useful post, and I think most of us are aware of the perils of using song lyrics. I always try to use photos I take myself, or use one from Morguefile or one of the similar free photo sites. I have a list somewhere! As for Pinterest, they will take down a photo on request. I had one removed from my Pinterest Board recently, but they said it was a repinned one from somewhere else in Pinterest, but it's really bugging me which one it was because they didn't say, and the only things I pin on Pinterest are useful blog posts, or articles in connection with my research. But. playing devil's advocate here, does that mean we can't share blog posts and useful information we find on the web, just in case there are copyright issues. It doesn't necessarily have to be Pinterest. It could be anywhere you are able to share. Now, I have to make a decision, should I tweet and pin this post to Pinterest as per usual, or should I play safe in case there are copyright issues connected with it?
Lydia Bennet said…
Good points Chris, and could one argue then that sharing a link with friends, colleagues or on blog posts is similarly copyright unfriendly. This is all new territory since the laws were devised, and changing all the time.
Yes - good points, Chris. And of course there's the concept of 'fair use' that 'permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders.' I suppose in a non-commercial setting, that might give us a good deal of leeway.
I was reading an account of a small film company that made a whole long programme about the history of Hollywood quite recently that made use of 'fair use' ruling when including lots of snippets of film. Although they admitted that if they had been slagging off any of them instead of praising them, they might have been in trouble.
AliB said…
I've always been aware of copyright issues but they don't get any easier! For instance, when I became a published author I decided I can't claim my blog - or anywhere else I post - is 'non-commercial' use since it's all part of a marketing effort.
I've always assumed a link to Pinterest would be okay, but copying an image from there wouldn't as who knows the original source?
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for an excellent, practical refresher on the minefields of copyright as it is applied online - with maps! I worked both independently and in corporate editing and writing jobs. The latter always provided a legal staff -- or at least one copyright lawyer - with whom editorial staff could consult, and we put to use whenever in doubt. Generally, however, the lawyers would always say "don't publish," covering their behinds nicely, or at least explaining the risks. As a freelancer, author, and now a self-publisher on the Net in blogs, etc, one has to keep up and be a jailhouse lawyer. One has to take care and be conscientious, but I find that over-reaction and literal over-protectiveness can be just as much of a problem as carelessness. There are lots of gray areas. Corporations tend to sue, or send papers just to indimitate, even when there is no case. Independent creatives on the other hand, vary. Frankly, I like when somebody uses my images, as long as they credit me. I need the publicity. Good post!

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