In the world of the printed word, copyright is well established and quite clearly defined – copyright is automatically assigned to the creator of a piece of work, unless they have signed that copyright over to another party. Any unlicensed and unauthorised use of that work is considered an infringement of copyright and the original creator is within their rights to take the infringer to court. But online copyright is a little less clear. Or is it?
Copyright in general – what is it?
Before we take an in-depth look at online copyright, it may be a good idea to explore how it operates in other media formats and at the way it is defined. Copyright is the mechanism by which society allows individuals to control the use and distribution of original works and expressed ideas. It does so by preventing other people making use of the work without the copyright holder’s explicit permission. It’s important to note that copyright protects the expression of an idea or work, but not the idea itself.
In order to be able to be copyrighted, a work or idea must meet the following criteria;
• It has to be original. It cannot have been expressed in a similar way before.
• It must be committed to a fixed form, eg. written. An idea or work cannot be copyrighted if it exists only as a thought – it must be expressed in a recognisable manner.
Not all the issues surrounding copyright are clear cut, that’s why there’s often considerable litigation required to resolve questions of intellectual property. For instance, there could be a considerable amount of debate surrounding the definition of an “original” idea.
What can be copyrighted?
Not everything is able to be copyrighted, though that which can generally falls into one of three main groups;
• Literary, artistic, dramatic and musical works – while this includes everything that you would expect, including books, poems, dance and mime, it also includes some unexpected works. For instance, databases, computer programs and learning resources.
• Films, sound recordings and broadcasts – this covers other types of visual and auditory media.
• Published editions of works – the way a specific text is arranged typographically in a publication is covered by copyright law.
Having briefly explored what can be copyrighted, it might be worth taking a look at what isn’t covered by copyright. Copyright does not extend to names, titles, slogans, methods, mathematical equations, commonly known information, or a particular style or fashion. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it does provide further insight into what is and isn’t covered by copyright.
What rights does online copyright afford the owner?
A copyrighted idea or work is protected from misuse by other 3rd parties, but copyright is also proactive in the sense that it allows the owner to;
• Copy the idea or work.
• Create and distribute copies of the idea or work.
• Rent out or lend the idea or work.
• Perform, display or play the idea or work.
• Make an adaptation of the idea or work.
The reason for copyright is generally considered to be that it allows an individual or organisation to benefit from their creation, without others interfering. The above rights are the main ways in which someone could benefit from their work. However, an individual doesn’t need to benefit from their creation for the copyright to continue to apply. For instance, an author does not need to continue publishing their book for copyright to still function.
How long does copyright last for?
Once a work has been created it is automatically copyrighted – there is no need to specifically apply for it. However, there’s still a question of how long it will remain under copyright. The length of the copyright varies from work to work and will often depend on variable factors, such as how long the creator lives.
However, broadly speaking copyright duration is as follows;
• For literary, artistic, dramatic and musical works, copyright extends for a further 70 years after the end of the calendar year in which the author dies.
• For sound recordings, copyright runs for a further 70 years after the end of the calendar year in which the recording is made.
• For film, copyright extends for a further 70 years after the end of the calendar year in which the last surviving member of key staff dies. Key staff is taken to include the principal director, the authors of the screenplay and dialogue, or the composer of music.
• For broadcasts, copyright extends for 50 years after the end of the calendar year in which it was first broadcast.
• For typographical arrangements, copyright runs for a further 25 years after the end of the calendar year in which the first edition is published.
The online copyright situation at present
The copying of online content across the web is rife and has been since the early days of the internet. This is in large part due to the ease with which content can be stolen – all that is needed is a few clicks to copy it from one site to your own.
Another reason for this proliferation is that there is a widespread misconception that copyright does not apply to online works. This is far from the truth. However, even more importantly, a major contributor to online copyright infringement is the way in which such copyrights rarely seem to be enforced. In some ways, the anonymity provided by the internet has resulted in a ‘wild west’ situation, where many people will ignore the law as long as they’re confident they won’t be punished.
Why your online content needs protecting
Despite the ease with which it can be accessed, online content isn’t any less valuable than its printed counterpart. The content on your website represents a significant investment, either of your own time – if you wrote it – or a financial investment if you hired a copywriter to create it for you. Similarly, if you’re tempted to ‘borrow’ content from another website you should stop and consider the time and effort that its creator put into it.
If someone copies your content, there are a number of direct consequences that can prove detrimental to business:
• Brand dilution – Your content will not work as hard for your brand if there are exact copies of it elsewhere on your competitors’ sites. Even though you are the originator of the content, you will likely be seen as having the same content as every other website.
• Duplicate content penalties – Again, the search engines are often unable to determine the original creator of the content. If there are multiple copies of your content across the internet, you may find that your own content is not indexed, effectively rendering it invisible. This is incredibly important in the context of SEO and ensuring your services reach their intended audience.
Online copyright – The facts
As we stated earlier, the idea that copyright doesn’t apply to online works in the same way as it does printed works is a misconception. Just as with a magazine article, a book, or a poem, copyright is automatically assigned to the creator of the content upon its inception. Though putting up copyright notices on your content does serve a purpose, it is by no means required. To further clarify for content creators and anyone thinking about lifting content from another website:
Copyright is assigned to all online content upon its creation, whether a copyright symbol or notice is displayed or not.
The only exception to the content creator being assigned the copyright is when they have entered into a web copywriting agreement with a client for whom they are a ‘ghost writer’. This is in fact the case for much online content, as most companies with an online presence use either in-house copywriters, freelance web copywriters, or a copywriting agency to produce the textual content for their websites. In such cases, the writer typically hands over the rights to to the work to their employer.
How to detect unauthorised use of your content
One of the principal reasons so much content is copied is that its rightful owners do not enforce their copyrights. This may be because they don’t understand that their content is copyrighted, they don’t know how to enforce their copyright, or that they don’t know that they are having content stolen from them. This final point is particularly important, as it can be extremely difficult to work out whether content is being taken and where it’s going.
This means that the first step in enforcing your online copyright is detecting its infringement. While you may come across it as a matter of course, it is highly unlikely that you’ll discover all infringements by chance. Consequently, it’s often a good idea to employ the services of specialist duplicate content checker software. Copyscape and Grammarly are two of the most popular tools for detecting online plagiarism and can be used to protect your website and online content. Copyscape even provide a premium Copysentry service that routinely checks the internet for recent duplications of content on your website. You can find out more about these tools and other methods for protecting your content in our recent post, ‘How to detect plagiarism of your online copy’.
Another good tool is Tynt, which can be used to automatically receive notifications when your content is copied and pasted, along with direct links to the content. While simpler tools like this may be useful if your site isn’t likely to be copy and pasted particularly often, they soon become over-run as traffic picks up. If you’re experiencing high visitor numbers and are relatively sure that online copyright infringement is a recurring problem, a paid premium service is likely to be worth the investment in the long term.
Enforcing your copyright
Once you’ve located copies of your content online you can take the necessary steps to get it removed. The best way to do this is to get in touch with the owner of the offending website, inform them that they are in breach of copyright law and ask them to remove it. This will usually be enough to get the content removed, but if not then you are within your rights to pursue legal action against the offender.
To reach the owner of a particular website you can usually find details on their contact page. However, if these are not present then you should be able to find them by doing a ‘whois’ search. This allows you to look up the person who registered a particular domain or website, giving you some idea of who may be behind the infringement. Once legal action has begun, a number of results are possible;
• Compensation for the infringement – this is often calculated in the form of ‘loss of earnings.’
• An injunction to prevent future infringement.
• Delivery, destruction, or removal of the infringing content.
To prevent the plagiarism of your online content you should aim for a strategy of deterrence. The purpose of placing a copyright symbol alongside your name and the date on all online content is not to claim copyright, but instead to indicate to others that it is yours and that you are prepared to enforce your rights. Doing so at the bottom of each webpage may be enough to deter many would-be copiers.
You can also make it technically more difficult for them to steal your content, by using tools and code which will prevent the ‘copy’ command from working. This is of course not a foolproof method, and the more determined will find a way around this, but it will make it harder for them to copy your content.
The fact is all websites should be creating original content, not just for ethical or legal reasons, but because it makes sound marketing sense. If you use the content of others then you are not leveraging what is special about your own business. Excellent, original content is not ‘one size fits all.’ Instead, it’s uniquely tailored to a business, platform, and purpose. How do you go about creating original content? Get in touch with Big Star Copywriting and we’ll be happy to guide you through the process.