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Blogs, Copyright, and Keeping your Nose Clean

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
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concerning copyright issues: 1) copyright must be respected and breach of copyright is theft; and, 2) copyright is an out-of-date and often unenforceable convention in these days of digital distribution and instant copying and sharing.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 them.

(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
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. Legally speaking... Image credit: Kippelboy | Wikimedia Commons
Philosophically speaking, perhaps not. Legally speaking… 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 licence. 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 whenever you’re required to do so. 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…

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6 thoughts on “Blogs, Copyright, and Keeping your Nose Clean

  1. Very good points, Mari. I knew something about the dangers of copyright and Creative Commons stuff and images being free for public access on Wickipedia (the only thing I like about that site) but that’s all. I believe a song or poem over a certain age ceases to have copyywrite, but I forget the number of years, and you’ve looked into it more thoroughly than me. I do know that thank goodness copyright didn’t apply to ‘The Light of Other Days’ or ‘Where’er You Walk’ in my books, thank goodness.
    But how would the rather mean spirited approach of an author/painter jealously regarding his or her copyright benefit him or her in practice? Would it really be worth their taking someone to court?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lucinda. Copyright does indeed expire after a certain length of time, though the precise length of time varies from country to country. I think you’re on pretty safe ground with the songs you’re likely to be referencing in your books!

      Good point about whether it would actually be worth anyone’s time to take legal action – personally, I’d doubt it, which is why I think it’s a pretty remote possibility. In theory. In practice, I wouldn’t want to put this to the test…

  2. I have to admit that I was completely naïve about the implications of copyright, especially in the use of images, when I first began my blog several years ago.

    I didn’t even know what I didn’t know – if that makes any sense. I have wised up to the implications of “harmlessly” borrowing someone else’s intellectual property. This is a really good article, Mari, that is important for bloggers, authors, or anyone who has any semblance of an online presence. And who doesn’t have a presence online these days?

    Thanks for the awesome links to the images. I’m not sure whether my research is completely legal or not, but I have been using images from publicdomainpictures.net as of late. And, even though they appear to be free, sometimes an image is so perfect that I feel compelled to drop a buck or two into someone’s account to buy them a coffee 😉

    1. Hello Dave, and thanks for commenting. And many thanks for directing my attention to publicdomainpictures.net, which is amazing – lots of beautiful images all of which, as far as I can see, are in the public domain (at least for non-commercial use). And you’re right – many of these pictures are so good that you do feel compelled to give the photographer something more in return than just an attribution!

  3. Interesting stuff, Mari. I get around the image aspect by only using photos that I’ve taken myself on my blog. Job done! As for the quotation dimension, I do recall reading about biographies where the authors had been denied the right to quote any of the subjects’ words – especially restricting where the subject is a writer of some kind! My current work-in-progress relies upon several aphorisms quoted from songs and film. Surely there are no prohibitions on this? Perhaps there are… I don’t know. It all seems rather precious to me.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Paul. Your point about aphorisms is an interesting one – is an aphorism in the public domain, or not? If a song’s lyrics have entered into the general public consciousness, isn’t it perfectly legitimate to quote them without having to seek permission? I think you could probably get away with it – but then again, I’m not a lawyer…

      You’re right – it is all rather precious!

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