Copyrights don’t give you a right to copy

I was surprised to see a favorite non-profit had committed an illegal act. On the third page of a recent newsletter, they reprinted an item from Reader’s Digest. It was germane to their mission, and they kindly included a credit line. Still, they broke the law.

Which law? Copyright law. Unless they formally obtained permission from the magazine’s publishers, reprinting the item violated copyright provisions. If the publishers chose to pursue an infringement charge, the organization would lose and be liable for financial damages, no matter what nice people they are or that they included a credit line. (I’m not an attorney and I’m not qualified to dispense legal advice. I’m just sharing a practical understanding of copyright law.)

I’m also surprised at how often a company has handed me a competitor’s brochure or other written material and said, “This is what our brochure (or whatever) should say. Just go ahead and use these words.” I won’t do that for three reasons. First, I’d be the accessory to copyright infringement. Second, no two companies are identical, so their marketing messages shouldn’t be, either. Finally, I’ll do much a better job of conveying the message than the competitor did.

Maybe you’ve used other people’s or organization’s words in your own materials or communications efforts, and you may wonder why I think it’s such a big deal. When you reprinted that story from Veeblefetzer Industry Report in your company’s newsletter, you put their name at the bottom. How’s that illegal?

In simple terms, you’ve taken somebody else’s property and used it without their permission.

Companies and other organizations pay me to create articles, ads, brochures, website content, and blog posts. That’s how I earn my living. People who have used things I’ve written without my permission have thought they were doing me a favor by giving my words a bigger audience.

But that favor doesn’t give them a right to make that decision on my behalf or to use my work without proper compensation. What I write belongs to me (or my clients, in the case of what’s known as work for hire). Other people have as much right to use my words without my permission as I have to walk into their homes and walk out with their home theater systems. I might refer to that act as complimenting their taste in home electronics; they’d call it simple theft. And that’s exactly what it would be.

Sometimes, those who have used other’s words without permission cite a concept called “fair use.” While that concept does exist, it’s widely misunderstood. The basic idea behind fair use is that you can reuse material without copyright infringement for certain purposes, such as commenting upon it or developing a formal critique.

Suppose you’re a high school English teacher who wants students to understand how playwrights employ dialogue to advance a plot. You reprint several lines from a David Mamet play to illustrate the idea. That’s fair use. Use the school’s copier to reprint the entire play so your school didn’t have to buy copies, and you’ve crossed into infringement.

Suppose you were writing a post for your own blog and wanted to share an idea I’ve mentioned in this article. You could quote me by reprinting a sentence or a short paragraph, and you’d be okay under fair use. Reprint this entire article without asking, or take a paragraph from it and claim it as your own writing, and you’ve violated the law. Copying the full length or a substantial part of something almost never falls under fair use.

So if you see something like that Reader’s Digest item that you’d like to share in your own publication, what can you do? Online, you can post a direct link, and you shouldn’t have any problem. For print, your best bet is to simply ask for permission. Many authors will be flattered and will happily give you an okay (maybe for a credit line and a copy of the finished piece). A copyright owner might also request a payment to allow you to use the content, which is known as licensing.

It’s true you might get away with copyright infringement. You might also get away with robbing the local liquor store at gunpoint. Both are examples of stealing something that belongs to someone else, and if you’re caught, both carry stiff penalties. You wouldn’t steal something from another person’s home or business. Please don’t steal their intellectual property, either.

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