Whether you’re reading a blog post, scrolling through memes, or watching a video on the internet, chances are the content you’re viewing was inspired at some point by another piece of creative work. Recycling information isn’t new, and some industries are even built on the idea of reusing and recycling creative content.
There are scores of feature accounts on Instagram, re-share feeds on Reddit, and Facebook posts that have been shared hundreds of thousands of times. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to use someone else’s content. Failing to stick to a particular set of guidelines and procedures could lead to plagiarism or copyright infringement.
Understanding Intellectual Property
Intellectual property is the legal umbrella term that covers the ownership of any tangible representation of someone’s thoughts, ideas, and creative materials. This term is used to protect everything from blueprints to song lyrics. There are two ways you can violate or infringe upon someone’s intellectual property: you can either plagiarize or infringe on someone’s copyright.
What Is Plagiarism?
Plagiarism refers to the appropriation of someone else’s words with the intent of presenting their ideas as your own. Even using one sentence from someone else’s written work without giving proper attribution counts as an act of plagiarism. However, legally a case like that is often handled with a slightly different approach.
For example, on social media, shared posts usually do not fall under plagiarism because the built-in share feature that many sites use automatically includes the original poster’s name or account information. However, if you take content from someone without using the built-in share feature (for example, posting someone’s poem on your Facebook status update without crediting the source), you would need to have express permission or authorization to use that content either with or without crediting the original author, depending on the terms.
What Is Copyright Infringement?
Copyright infringement involves the active use of creative work for the purpose of distribution, sale, or unauthorized publication. When creators of a written or materialized idea wants to pursue legal action against the person or entity who used their work without permission, they might sue the accused for copyright infringement. While plagiarism can’t be pursued in a court of law, copyright infringement can potentially lead to a criminal investigation and, in some cases, prison time or hefty fines.
Earlier this week, Fuck Jerry account owner Elliot Tebele was served with a lawsuit of $150,000 in damages for using someone else’s online content without consent. Tebele shared a screenshot of another person’s Twitter post as a sponsored advertisement without crediting or receiving authorization from the original owner.
How to Avoid Copyright Infringement?
It’s still possible to use another person’s tangible, creative work without violating intellectual property laws and ethical guidelines. You can, for example, credit the original owner for his or her work. Although this will protect you from plagiarism, copyright infringement is a bit more involved. Use these steps as guidelines if you plan on sharing or using another person’s work.
1. Ask Permission
Obtaining explicit permission from the owner of the creative work, ideally in writing, is the best defense against a potential lawsuit for copyright infringement. The owner also has the exclusive rights to create any and all content inspired by the original piece, which includes derivative work. When in doubt, send that email.
2. Review the Licensing
Creative commons allows creators to control or limit the way their work is used while also maintaining copyright ownership for their work. It also allows you to use content without paying licensing fees or royalties to the original creator.
There are a few key factors to consider when using work with a creative commons license, but the most important is giving credit to the respective owner. As long as you’re not violating the terms of the license, permission to use the work can’t be redacted.
Formal license is the best way to ensure you’re using someone’s creative work without violating intellectual property rights. If you don’t see that the work falls under one of the other licenses on this list, you can contact the owner directly to set your own terms. This gives you and the owner a definitive understanding on what the work can and cannot be used for, as well as details regarding attribution.
The Right Way to Give Source Credit
Whether you want to use a few words or a few pages of someone else’s work, you need to make sure you give the owner credit to avoid being accused of plagiarism and, potentially, sued for copyright infringement. Term papers, social media posts, and even images need to be credited properly.
If you’re using any of the author’s original words, you need to use direct quotes. Depending on the format, you might also use either in-text citations, footnotes, or a bibliography to give more information about the author. For more casual uses like social media posts, the author’s name is sufficient for most purposes.
When using a direct quote, it’s important to refrain from altering the owner’s words without specifying that a change has been made. If you significantly change the wording, you’d want to cite the work as paraphrased.
Re-wording or editing someone’s words falls under the umbrella of derivative work, which still needs to be credited. You can give credit in the text itself by referring to the author before or after using the paraphrased quote, or you can add a footnote indicator for more information.
Images and Videos
Photographs, artwork, and other images are still tangible representations of an idea, which means they’re also protected by copyright laws. Images should remain unaltered, and all watermarks and logos must be left on the shared work. To give credit, you can simply add the owner’s name in the caption to show that the image belongs to someone else.
Social Media Platforms
It can be tempting to recycle content on the internet, but the risk is high. Understanding what you can share and how content can be used could prevent you from losing your credibility or facing legal action. Make sure that you have free use of the content you’d like to share. Reach out to the owner directly if you’re on the fence. Intellectual property is still property, and it’s better to be on the safe side than on the receiving end of a high-stakes lawsuit.