Copyright and our marketing materials: What we should know

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197px-CopyrightThe power — and limitations — of intellectual property rights in marketing materials cannot be overstated. You can easily step over the line into litigation for trademark and copyright violations; but even if you own the copyright, you cannot stop some things you might not like to see.

For example, consider the embarrassing situation for a Canadian beer brand when social media postings showed a sadistic murderer (then on the run) holding a can of beer. The brewery sent “legal” letters to news media demanding they use other images — but that just made the story even worse. In this case, the brewery had over-reacted; sure this is not the sort of celebrity endorsement the brewery would like to see, but the media certainly had the right to use the images and the negative publicity added to the problem.

Conversely, consider the situation where you might think you could lift a small image from the web, and post it. If you aren’t careful, you will encounter the legal demand letter from one of two or three copyright protection services — often insisting you pay $1,200 or more in penalties for the image you may have inadvertently stolen. Many businesses just pay the fee to avoid the legal complications, others decline, but there still is plenty of anxiety.

Certainly, I see many instances where people don’t understand copyright on the AdSense help forums, when the publishers or videographers discover their accounts are permanently disabled for copyright violations.

I think most readers here know the basic rules, but I’ll restate them in case you aren’t clear. This isn’t legal advice. If you have concerns about possible copyright violations, I would take some time to research things before posting or using the materials.

If you do it yourself, it is okay — but of course if you shoot images of people on private property  or with safety violations, there could be consequences.

Generally, it is best to get permission from individuals you wish to use in commercial shots.  This requires a model release. I wouldn’t worry about this if it is a simple innocuous image in a public place, but if you shouldn’t have a camera in the location under normal conditions (say a casino) be sure to get permission before doing anything.

If someone else takes the images or provides them to you, the other person owns the copyright, and you can only use it with permission.

This includes professional photographers you hire for shoots.  You need to clarify with the photographer in advance your rights and limitations for the images and you may with to pay extra for additional rights.

Stock image and creative comments or copyright-released images are often a good solution, but review the rules.

Services such as istockphoto.com (now owned by Getty Images) and Wikipedia often provide access to cheap or free images with relatively wide copyright freedom..

Copyright covers the words, not the story.

If you run a story verbatim, you should obtain permission. However, it is generally okay to rewrite materials in your own language, properly sourcing the information (and ideally providing a hyperlink.) There is a boundary of how much direct quotation and copying you can use — it depends on context. For example you can often quote verbatim from another person’s work, in the context of a larger story of your own.  Of course, you are much more likely to be okay with this if your quotation is positive and in context, than if it is negative and out-of-context.

Be cool about copyright

Most of the time, a simple advance request is okay. Sometimes if the context is positive and I am stretching the fair comment limits, I’ll post the material on the blog and let the copyright holder know, as it is easy to remove the content quickly if there are concerns. Similarly, if you find violations that appear to be innocent, you will probably have little problem in just requesting the violator remove your material or provide source credit.

Copyright clearance services

You can often obtain permission and pay a modest fee for copyright permission through services such as Access Copyright in Canada or the Copyright Clearance Center in the US.

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