Credit where it’s due: Don’t fall foul of copyright law

Sep 26, 2016
Content Marketing

Copyright laws weren’t created for the digital age. Technology and internet connectivity have radically changed the production of cultural material — and it is easier than ever for an individual to have an idea, record it in words, images or sound and then release it to the world.

Did you like that intro? I was pretty pleased with it. It’s beautifully crafted. In fact, there’s only one problem with it: It’s not mine. I didn’t write it. I nicked it off the internet. It’s plagiarised.

Look at it again. It’s sitting up there right now, still in breach of copyright.

It’s only once I tell you that marvellous introduction is the work of Shane Richmond, a freelance journalist writing in 2015 about proposed changes to European Union copyright laws for Politico, that it stops being a flagrant and appalling breach of copyright.

(For the record, pinching someone else’s introduction is never actually OK — even if you include a credit — but I had a point to make.)

Always credit the creator

And that point, really, is about the importance of providing credit to the creator or copyright holder of any piece of content you use, reference or otherwise sample — anywhere, anytime; be it online or off.

There are two chief reasons giving credit where it’s due is important:

  1. It’s the law.
  2. It’s the right thing to do.

So, in this digital age, how do you make sure you’re not accidentally breaching someone’s copyright?

Be aware of the law

Breaching copyright can lead to fines of many thousands of dollars or even receive a jail term, depending on the nature of the breach. In truth, you’re more likely to receive a takedown from the copyright holder’s lawyers or a demand to pay a copyright fee than you are to find yourself in court for a minor breach of copyright. It’s easier to avoid the trouble in the first place by following the rules.

Find out what the rules are in your jurisdiction. There are plenty of authoritative resources on the internet (often provided by governments or government agencies) explaining the laws in most countries, including Australia, the UK and the US.

Don’t make assumptions

There are a lot of myths about copyright, including the mistaken idea that if something doesn’t have the © symbol next to it it’s not copyrighted. Brad Templeton has done a great job of myth busting over on his site, so take a look there for more information about common copyright misconceptions.

Public domain

Not every piece of content requires credit. Some things are considered “public domain”. According to the US-based website, ‘public domain’ is:

Works that are no longer protected by copyright, or never have been… This means that you may freely borrow material from these works without fear of plagiarism, provided you make proper attributions.”

Note that, even then, an attribution is required.

Again, the public domain rules may differ between jurisdictions so it’s best to familiarise yourself with your local laws, but here’s the situation in the US:

“In general, anything published more than 75 years ago is now in the public domain. Works published after 1978 are protected for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. The laws governing works published fewer than 75 years ago but before 1978 are more complicated, although generally copyright protection extended 28 years after publication plus 47 more years if the copyright was renewed, totalling 75 years from the publication date.”

So it’s complicated.

Fair use

There is also something called “fair use”, which is the idea that in certain circumstances it’s fair for a party to use another party’s copyrighted material without consent. says if the material has “been transformed in an original way through interpretation, analysis, etc, it is more likely to be considered ‘fair use’.”

“The more you’ve ‘borrowed’ the less likely it is to be considered fair use. What percentage of your work is ‘borrowed’ material? What percentage of the original did you use? The lower the better.”

Really ‘fair use’ applies to circumstances where a piece of copyrighted content needs to be used for news reporting, or public commentary, or perhaps for artistic freedom purposes, like parody. (Technically, this is also how I was able to use Politico’s introduction to make my point at the top of this article without receiving Politico’s express permission).

Act in good faith

While public domain and fair use rules exist, chances are if you’re not sure whether you need to provide credit, you probably should.

There’s a great article on Plagiarism Today about the five kinds of copyright infringement most commonly found on the internet. You can read it here. Are you guilty of any of these breaches?

The best bet, I’ve found, is to always act in good faith. Here are my top tips:

Always credit the creator

If you’re just borrowing a sentence or two, credit where it came from. Put it in quotation marks. Do anything you can to honour the creator and copyright holder. Do as you would be done by.

Note that the creator may be different to the copyright holder. Make sure you credit the copyright holder, because it’s the law. Credit the creator if you can, because it’s the right thing to do. For example, above I credited Politico as the copyright holder and Shane as the creator.

Provide a link to the original work

The internet thrives on links. It’s how we leap from one piece of content to another. Always provide a link to the original article or idea. This is great for the copyright holder, who might get more traffic to their site and have more people engage with their work. It’s also great for the reader, who may want extra information.

Ask permission, never assume it’s free

Never cut and paste large passages of an article or use an image, or audio, without asking permission first. (For the record, I asked Shane’s permission to use his intro.)

You can’t nick a picture, audio or article off the internet and republish it as if it were your own any more than you can walk out of a supermarket with a trolley full of goods without going through the checkout. The copyright holder, like the grocer, has the right to ask you to pay.

The exceptions here are when you can be completely confident the work is in the public domain or where it’s fair use (when it can be used with attribution) or where the copyright holder has publicly waived the requirement to identify their copyright — as sometimes happens on photo sharing sites.

If in doubt, don’t use it

Short of getting a legal opinion on whether it’s OK to use copyrighted material, if in doubt the best bet is not to use it. Rely on your own creativity instead!


If you want fresh and original content for your brand, contact the team at Lush – The Content Agency.