FAQs about the Legalities of Social Media

Carter Law Firm's Official Postcard - let me know if you want me to send you one.

Carter Law Firm’s Official Postcard – Let me know if you want me to send you one.

I had the pleasure of speaking at the Public Relations Society of America’s Western District Conference last weekend. I led two sessions: “So you want to do a flash mob” and “The Legal Side of Blogging: 10 Questions to Ask Before you Hit ‘Publish.’” Both sessions were great and I wanted to share some of the frequent questions I get when I talk about the legalities of social media.

What should you do if you’re outsourcing your blog content?
You need a kick ass contract that clearly states who owns the copyright in the content that is created. If the hiring company obtains copyright, does the blogger get permission to put a copy of the work in their portfolio to obtain other work? The contract should also state who is responsible if there are any problems related to the work (i.e., copyright infringement claim) or if there are any disputes related to the contract.

What should you do if you want to use a photo from a company’s site, such as if want to write a positive review of their company?
There’s a chance that using the photo could qualify as fair use; however it’s probably best to avoid the possibility of being hit with a copyright infringement claim by asking the company if you can use their photo. You never know who owns the rights to an image and if there are any restrictions related to using it.

What’s the worst case scenario if you use an image from Google Images without verifying that it was available for use with a Creative Commons license or had been released to public domain?
You could be sued for tens of thousands of dollars for copyright infringement. I always say that just because someone sues you that it doesn’t mean they’re going to win, but in this case, they might. You can still be sued and lose even if you didn’t mean any harm.

I get permission to use every photo on my blogs or use photos that are available under Creative Commons licenses that allow me to modify and commercialize each image.

What if you’ve been using Google Images or you haven’t kept track of what images you’re allowed to use?
Probably no one wants to hear this, but I’d rip every image out of your site and start over, making sure that you own or have permission to use every image on your site.

These are my rules of thumb when it comes to social media:

  • Assume everything you post online will be seen by your best friend, your worst enemy, your boss, and your mother. If you’re not ok with one of those people seeing what you want to say, don’t post it.
  • Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.

For more information about the legalities of social media, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.

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Sending a Bill When Someone Steals Your Work

Mushroom? by Oslo in the Summertime from Flickr

Mushroom? by Oslo in the Summertime from Flickr

I’m a member of a Facebook group for people to discuss and share instances where other people use their work. Most of the members are nature photographers who do gorgeous work. Most of them have no desire to sue people who steal their work, but they would like to be compensated. And some of them are getting pissed when they find that someone has stolen their work and have started sending bills to people who use their work without permission.

This isn’t a bad idea. I’ve had a friend get a bill in the mail when he used someone’s photograph without permission that he found via Google Images. You can view it here or below.

When someone comes to me and wants to send a bill to anyone they discover is infringing on their copyrights, I suggest they add information to the website where they show their work about licensing terms and fees. This makes it more credible when the artist sends a bill that essentially says that by using a photograph, the infringer has agreed to pay the fee and abide by the license’s terms. As long as the infringer complies, they are no longer committing copyright infringement.

The downside of this strategy is many people will ignore such a bill if they receive one. Then the question for the artist is “What’s next?” Do you sue them? Send a DMCA takedown notice to get the work taken off their site? Call them out publicly for using your work without permission? Do you drop the issue?

My friend who got the bill for using an authorized image earlier this year got a bill from a company with a track record of suing people who don’t pay the bill and winning. In his case, he choices appeared to be pay the bill (or try to negotiate a lower price) or get sued. If you don’t follow up when people don’t pay the bill, it’s kind of like the photoradar tickets. If you get one in the mail, you can deal with it by paying the fine or going to traffic school or avoid service for four months until the court drops the charge.

I’m not one to tell people what they should do, but I advise people to think their plan of action all the way through before selecting a course of action. If you need help deciding what’s the best strategy for protecting your copyrights, please contact a copyright attorney in your community.

For more information about copyright and blogs, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.
You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Using Google Image Search to Detect Copyright Infringement

Google Image SearchI heard you can input a picture into the Google Images search engine to see if someone has stolen or used one of your pictures without your consent. I decided to try to figure it out to see if it works.

I’m happy to report it’s super easy. Here’s how you do it.

  1. Go to the Google Images search page.
  2. Click on the camera icon on the far right of the search bar. This will bring up the “search by image” box.
  3. Paste the URL for the image you want to search for or upload it and hit “Search.”
  4. The results will show you every instance where someone has used that photo.
My paintball wound - Photo by Merlz Tamondong

My paintball wound – Photo by Merlz Tamondong

I started looking for images I’ve used on The Undeniable Ruth and I found an instance where someone pulled an image off my site without my permission. It’s a picture of me from Ladies’ Paintball Night. Someone put it on a paintball forum without asking me first. Even though this is a picture of me, I don’t own the copyright in it so there’s nothing I can do to get it removed, and to be honest, I don’t really care.

This search engine is one tool you can use to search for copyright infringement, but it won’t catch every copy of your photos, just the copies of the photos from your site. I know this picture of my dog Rosie is on my site and I shared it with Attorney at Work for a post I wrote for them. I didn’t give them a copy of the image off my site, so when I searched for this picture of Rosie, it only showed images from my site, not theirs.

My sweet Rosie dog

My sweet Rosie dog

If you’re worried about people stealing your work from your site, keep an eye on your analytics. A lot of people think it’s ok to use an image off your site as long as they give an attribution and a link to the source. All they may have done is committed copyright infringement and told you about it. I’ve discovered two instances of copyright infringement of my work this way.

If you create any type of content and you’re concerned about copyright infringement, please consult a copyright attorney in your community who can help you create and implement a strategy to protect your work.

For more information about copyright, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.
You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTube, LinkedIn, or you can email me.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Register Your Copyrights

Poor Frog & Macrograpy by Hamed Saber Ruth Carter

Poor Frog & Macrograpy by Hamed Saber

I frequently get questions from people claiming that someone copied a photograph that they own and republished it without their permission. They want to know what their options are for financial recourse. I start by asking them two questions.

  1. When did you take the photograph?
  2. Did you register your copyright?

Most of the time the photograph in question was taken years ago and the photographer didn’t register their copyright.  The majority of artists know that they get exclusive copyright rights the second they create their work in some tangible form, but most of them don’t know that they have to register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office to maximize their protection and options for recourse when someone steals or illegally uses their work.

By creating an original literary, visual, or audiovisual work, you get the exclusive rights to copy, distribute, display, perform, and make derivative works of the original work. When and whether you register your copyright determines how much you might collect if someone violates your rights.

The Copyright Act says you must register your work within 3 months of publication or 1 month of learning of the infringement (whichever happens first!) to be eligible for statutory damages and attorneys’ fees. Statutory damages is money the court can require the infringer to pay you regardless of how much money you lost because of the infringement. If the court decides that the infringer knowingly and willfully stole your work, they can order the infringer to pay you up to $150,000 per violation plus the cost of your attorney!

If you don’t register your copyright within 3 months of publication or 1 month of learning of the infringement, you can only collect your actual damages. This is the amount of money you lost because of the infringement and/or what the infringer earned by copying your work. There are times when your actual damages is $0 because you didn’t lose any money and the infringer didn’t make any money due to the infringement. If you had registered your work within the timeframe stated in the Copyright Act, you would have been eligible for statutory damages and attorneys’ fees regardless of our actual damages.

It’s frustrating when I have to tell clients and friends that their options for financial compensation are few or non-existent, because it’s a preventable problem. You can register a copyright electronically online for as little as $35. You can register multiple photographs with one registration application and fee. If you are a professional photographer, you can register each photo shoot with one copyright. Whenever you finish the final product from a shoot, which I suspect is within 3 months of the shoot, take a few minutes to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. You can even pass the cost of registration onto your clients by raising your fees $35.

Registering a copyright is fast and easy, and you can do it yourself if you don’t want to a pay a lawyer to do it for you. If doing it by yourself the first time scares you, hire a lawyer to walk you through the process. It doesn’t take much time or money to maximize your protection , so do it.

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