Copyright Protection – Ideas vs Expression

Golden Gate Bridge by Julian Fong from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Golden Gate Bridge by Julian Fong from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A common mistake among professional creatives and amateur is understanding the scope of copyright protection, In the U.S., when you have a copyright, you have protection for your original expression, not the ideas contained within your work.

What Does Copyright Protect
Copyright applies when you have an “original work of authorship” that is “fixed in a tangible medium.” When you have a copyright, you can prevent others from using or claiming your work without permission, but it doesn’t give you a monopoly over the ideas contained within a work.

The image above is a photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge by Julian Fong. By taking this photo, he has the copyright in the image; however, he can’t stop others from taking picture of the bridge. If I went to San Francisco and determined where he was standing, I could take a photo that is nearly identical to his, but that is not a violation of his copyright. He can only stop me from claiming his work as my own or using his work without his permission. He can’t stop me from creating my own picture. His rights only extend to his exact expression, not the idea of capturing an image of this bridge on a sunny day.

The same rules that apply to images also apply to written material. This is why multiple people can write about the same topic and even express similar sentiments without risk of violating the other’s copyright rights. As long as one writer is not deliberating copying the other’s work word-for-word and claiming it as their own, it’s possible for two people to create similar works without violating the other’s rights. It is permissible under the concept of fair use to quote another writer and provide your own thoughts and others’ perspectives about the issue.

What Is Not Protected
Copyright only protects original expression, it does not protect facts, ideas, methods, titles, names, short phrases, or recipes. Copyright can protect and original arrangement of facts, but not when it’s an unoriginal arrangement. That’s why a cookbook may be protected by copyright (original arrangement of recipes and images) but a phonebook is not.

I regularly receive questions from people about what is the scope of copyright protection and whether contributing to a project (such as being the subject of a photo) gives them rights in the resulting product. Copyright, like many areas of law, has few definite answers. Each situation must be evaluated based on its merits.

If you want to talk with me about copyright law and protecting your rights, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content, entrepreneurial tips, and rants that are available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Planning for the Digital Afterlife

Candlelight Vigil 6 by B. W. Townsend from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Candlelight Vigil 6 by B. W. Townsend from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Your accounts on websites and social media platforms, website domains, and all the content you post are your property, and therefore part of your estate.  When you pass away, your estate plan determines who will inherit your possession, including your property online. When you write your will, make sure it includes information about who will own your online content when you die.

Copyright Ownership
Under the U.S. Copyright Act, you are the copyright owner in any original works you create the moment they are “fixed” in any tangible medium (including digital files). This includes the photos and videos that you take post on social media and the content you create and post on your websites. For any individual, the copyright in each work does not expire until 70 years after you die. It’s important to designate who will be the copyright owner for your content.

Maintain Accounts
You may have accounts that require payment to maintain them – such as your web domains. Your accounts could be disabled or delete if they are not maintained, meaning the content could be lost if someone doesn’t continue to pay your domain, hosting, and account fees. If you want a website to live on after you pass away, include instructions and money for doing so.

For your other social media accounts, check with each site’s terms of service about what happens to an account when a user passes away. There may be processes in place to transition your account into a memorial page and/or transfer control to your loved ones.

Settling your Online Affairs
When you create an estate plan, you designate an executor or personal representative for your estate who is responsible for settling your affairs. Consider designating a representative to oversee you online affairs. Provide a list of your online property and instructions regarding what should happen to it. You may also want to give this person instructions regarding the files on your computer, in your phone, or in the cloud.

You may select one person as your regular personal representative and a tech savvy friend to address your online affairs. Your online executor may need access to your passwords to your computer, phone, and for each account. (This is when using a password storage system like LastPass is handy.) Your online executor is also the best person to clear your browser history, delete images from your machine, and possibly remove items from your home that you don’t want your family to see.

Dying Without a Will
If you die without an estate plan (aka die intestate), you’ll have no say over who inherits what from your estate. The court will appoint a personal representative and the laws of your state will determine who inherits your estate. In Arizona, if you die without a will, your spouse inherits your estate. If you don’t have a spouse, your children inherit your estate. If you don’t have a spouse or children, your parents inherit if they are living, otherwise your property goes to your then-living siblings. If you are an entrepreneur, you should also be aware of what happens to your LLC when you die.

If you want to talk with me about who owns your online content now and in the afterlife, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content, entrepreneurial tips, and rants that are available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Using Others’ Content – Legal Dos & Don’ts

Cut Copy Paste by Arthit Suriyawongkul from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Cut Copy Paste by Arthit Suriyawongkul from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’ve received a lot of questions lately about how and when it is permissible to use other’s content without committing copyright infringement. This aspect of the copyright law is called fair use, and it’s a murky gray area. Each situation needs to be evaluated based on its merits as there few black-and-white rules regarding the legal use of others’ content.

Sharing a Post
If you like a post, you may want to share it with others. The legal way to do this is share a link to the original post with your audience. Sharing a link is the digital equivalent of pointing at something. It doesn’t create a copy of it. You will likely be accused of copyright infringement if you copy/paste the content from the original site to your website. Even if you have good intentions, you’re still interfering with the copyright holder’s right to control where their work is copied and distributed.

If you want to share a copy of a post, ask for permission. I get 2-3 requests a year from people who want to print and share copies of a post I wrote for training purposes or as part of a seminar. I’ve always allowed this as long as they include an attribution so the audience knows where it came from.

Commenting on a Post
If you want to quote someone in a post and add your own commentary to their thoughts, that is generally permissible. This is one of the things fair use is meant to protect. It’s best to quote the original post, provide an attribution and a link to the site, and then add your thoughts about it. By adding commentary, you’re more likely to be contributing to the conversation rather than committing copyright infringement.

One of the questions I was recently asked was whether they could write about the same topic as someone else. There’s no copyright protection for facts or ideas, so as long as you’re not copying someone’s working and claiming it as your own, you can write about the ideas as another writer, even without as attribution – unless you quote them.

Using an Image
This was an interesting question – someone asked when they write a post that comments on another person’s work, can they use the image from the original article. This raises a “red flag” for me because depending on the circumstances, it could be permissible or copyright infringement. If the article is about the image itself, then using the image is likely protected by fair use.

Otherwise using the photo from another’s post may be copyright infringement, especially if readers are seeking the original post and accepting yours as a substitute. I could see readers being confused because the image on the two posts are identical. If the image on the original post is not as essential aspect of the story, I recommend using a different image. I usually get my images from Creative Commons that come with the license to modify and commercialize the original.

Copyright and fair use are complicated issues that permeate the blogosphere. Before using another’s content, consider whether what you’re doing is likely to be legal and whether it might be best to request permission before using another’s content. If you have any question regarding using others’ content and fair use, please contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. If you want access to my exclusive content that’s shared only with my mailing list, please subscribe to the firm’s newsletter.

What’s the Answer to Revenge Porn?

What The . . . ? by Reinis Traidas from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

What The . . . ? by Reinis Traidas from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’m frustrated.

I regularly review the terms people search for and end up on this site. Almost every day people are asking questions about how they can determine if their intimate photos and videos have been posted online or what they should do if a current or ex-partner is threatening to post their intimate photos.

Now, I have no issue with consenting adults creating photos or videos in the privacy of their bedroom or wherever they have sexy time. I have a huge issue when it comes to people acting irresponsibly with these media files. And the problem doesn’t appear to be getting better.

My rule of thumb is people shouldn’t create intimate photos or videos unless they are certain that everyone involved is responsible and respectful enough not to share them with anyone. If you know you might be tempted to post these file or show them to your friends, don’t have them on your phone, delete them if you have them, or better yet – don’t create them.

I suspect a lot of people feel embarrassed when they learn that their naked image is online or someone is threatening to post it, so they try to deal with it quietly. These bad actors get to be so abusive, in part, because they’re doing it in the shadows behind a computer screen. They rely on their victim silence. The best response may be to bring this person into the light. If you are a victim in this type of situation, call the police. You may be the victim of revenge porn, harassment, or extortion. You may also want to talk to a lawyer because you might have a civil case as well.

Depending on your circumstances, your most effective course of action may be to turn to the court of public opinion by calling this bad actor out for their abusive and disrespectful deeds.

Likewise, if your friend offers to show you the intimate photos or videos they created with their partner, forcefully decline. Tell your friend they’re a disrespectful dick for even considering sharing these. This person is a jerk who shouldn’t be dating anyone or engaging in any activities that might lead to procreation. The only exception to this advice is if your friend offers to hand you their phone to look at the images. The good buddy response would be to take their phone and delete the images – save them from themselves.

In thinking about these situations, one of the reasons why I’m so frustrated is because I feel powerless to stop this misbehavior. The answer to this problem may lie in the way we teach tweens and tweens about using their phones. Just like we teach kids to say “please” and “thank you,” they need to be taught that it’s unacceptable to create and share content designed to humiliate and disrespect others.

If you suspect that you are the victim of revenge porn threatened with revenge porn, please know that you don’t have to deal with this situation alone. Please call the police, your local domestic violence resource center, and/or a lawyer. If you have any questions about revenge porn or any other questions about social media harassment, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

YouTube Reinstated my Video

Webtreats - 272 YouTube Icons Promo Pack by webtreats from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Webtreats – 272 YouTube Icons Promo Pack by webtreats from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last month, YouTube pulled one of my videos within hours of it being released. My videos are typically uploaded in advanced and released early every Wednesday morning. That was the strangest message to wake up to.

The weird thing was that the videos on this challenge are mostly Q&A for legal questions about business, intellectual property, and internet law. Occasionally, I talk about more risqué topics like revenge porn and legal issues related to posting or sharing intimate photos and videos, but this video was about publicity rights. (The question I received was poorly phrased. As written it sounded like he/she could have been asking about human trafficking, but I’m pretty sure they were asking about the right of publicity.)

Since life is blog material, instead of posting the video that day, I posted about how YouTube pulled my video for allegedly violating their Community Guidelines. I do not know if someone reported my video as offensive or if an automatic process within YouTube detected suspicious verbiage and removed it automatically.

Initially, I was going to let it go, thinking “Their site, their rules;” but a friend suggested I appeal the decision. (I wish I could remember who suggested this! Thank you!) I went into the firm’s YouTube channel and submitted an appeal with a short note explaining that the purpose of the video was a discussion of publicity rights, not an endorsement of human trafficking. About a day later, I received the following response:

Thank you for submitting your video appeal to YouTube. After further review, we’ve determined that your video doesn’t violate our Community Guidelines. Your video has been reinstated and your account is in good standing.

In case you missed it, here’s the video that led to this predicament:

I’m glad this situation has a happy ending. The lesson I learned from all of this is that it’s worth it to appeal YouTube’s decision if you think a video was pulled in error. If you have any questions about a YouTube video or any other questions about social media law, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Fair Use Victory!

Bambi vs. Godzilla (211/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Bambi vs. Godzilla (211/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The Ninth Circuit of the Federal Court handed down an important ruling regarding fair use this week. In Lenz v. Universal, aka the “Dancing Baby” case was about copyright, DMCA takedown notices, and fair use. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued Universal Music Publishing Group after Universal sent a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice when a mother uploaded a 29-second video of her baby dancing to a Prince song.

The key element of this court ruling is that the court declared that “copyright holders must consider fair use before sending a [DMCA] takedown notice.” Prior to this case, fair use was regarded as an “affirmative defense.” If you’ve seen my YouTube videos, you have seen this one where I declare, “Fair use is a defense, not a permission slip.” This court said that’s not the case, but rather that fair use is authorized by the Federal Copyright Act. There is no copyright infringement if your use of another’s copyright-protected work is permitted by fair use.

If you’re interested in learning more about fair use, I wrote a post that includes a mnemonic device for the fair use factors for a panel I did at Phoenix Comicon on fair use and fan art/fiction.

There are two downsides to the case (at least for now):

  1. Although the court said that copyright holders must consider fair use before sending a DMCA takedown notice, they only have to have subjective good faith belief that the use of the copyrighted work is illegal, even if this belief is objectively unreasonable.
  2. This ruling only applies to the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit is comprised of Arizona, California, and most of the western United States. However, this ruling is not binding on the other ten Circuit Courts, but they can take it under advisement in future cases.

This case is a step in the right direction and will hopefully lead to fewer abuses of the DMCA. You can read the EFF’s full report about the case here.

Footnote: This case took eight years to reach this ruling. Sometimes pursuing a lawsuit is the right decision, but you have to be prepared to be in it for the long haul.

How the copyright laws apply to the internet is a legal issue that is constantly developing. If you need a resource about how the law applies to social media, please check out The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you want to chat with me about a specific question related to copyright or internet law, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Who’s Talking to your Kids Online?

Hacker by Zodman from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Hacker by Zodman from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Did you see this social media experiment by Coby Persin where he pretends to be a 15 year-old boy? He approached a handful of 12-14 year-old girls online and invited them to meet in person. In each situation the parents were in on the act and all of them were convinced that their daughter’s wouldn’t accept the invitation, but each girl did – meeting him at a park, inviting him to their house, and getting into his van.

This video was instantaneously popular when it came and it’s had millions of hits, but I waited until now to talk about it, because this isn’t a one-and-done topic. This is a conversation parents need to be having with their kids on an ongoing basis about talking to people online and crossing the line from online interaction to meeting in the real world.

I have always recommended that parents be on the same social media platforms as their kids so they can monitor what they’re children are doing online. Parents should also know the passwords for their kids’ phones so they can check their text messages and photos. (And I’m an advocate of teens having some privacy, but it shouldn’t be a free-for-all.) After seeing this video, I have a few more suggestions for parents to protect their kids online.

1. Be Aware of Who your Kids are Talking to Online.
Just like you have at least a passing familiarity about who your kid knows at school and in their extracurricular activities, you should talk with your kids about who they talk to online and via text messages. Know who is an influence in their lives. If they mention someone new or become more secretive, that should give you a reason to probe deeper into what’s going on. It could be standard teenage rebellion, but it could be a reason for concern.

2.  Remind your Kids: “Don’t Befriend Strangers Online.”
I have a personal rule – if you’re not my friend in real life, you don’t get to be my “friend” on Facebook. Anyone can message me (because I use social media professionally) but that’s where I draw the line. I recommend the same rule for kids. The fact that someone looks pretty or appears to be a friend of a friend is not a good enough reason to have an ongoing connection. They may have a conversation because they’re fans of the same thing or in a Facebook group, but that shouldn’t be enough to allow that person more than surface access to you.

3.  Teach your Kids: “People Present an Altered Self Online.”  
I believe that most people are good and have good intentions; however, when it comes to the internet, everybody lies. Some people present their best self while others blatantly present a false self. Think of everyone online as a persona more than a person – at best you’re only seeing one side of them. Just like you shouldn’t compare your body to airbrushed fashion models, don’t compare yourself to someone’s posts online.

Keep the conversation about online safety going. Show your kids Coby Persin’s video and TV programs like To Catch a Predator and talk about the fact that not everyone is what they appear to be in real life compared to what they say online. Every teenager should read and own The Gift of Fear by security expert Gavin de Becker before they get their driver’s license. (I am not a paid spokesperson for Gavin de Becker. I’m just a fan of his work.)

Internet safety is a complicated topic.  If you want to chat with me more, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Working with People who Don’t Understand Copyright

Sentinel vs. Jawa (88/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Sentinel vs. Jawa (88/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Here’s the scenario: You are a newly hired third party content creator for a company. You learn that your client has a habit of copying pictures from Pinterest or Google Images searches without verifying that they are allowed to use the images on their website and/or social media posts. They want you to do the same. What should you do?

Option #1: Your Client Needs an Education about Copyright
Some people truly believe they can use any image they find on the internet, particularly if they give an attribution and a link back to the original. There are so-called “gurus” who will tell you this is ok. It’s not.

What your client is likely doing is committing copyright infringement. Inform your client that he/she is running the risk of getting a cease and desist letter, a bill with a license, or a lawsuit. In the worst-case scenario, they could face a lawsuit for $150,000 per image they use, plus attorneys’ fees. Tell your client to thank their lucky stars they haven’t faced one of these consequences yet and advise them that the prudent thing to do would be to replace all images on their site with pictures they can legally use.

Use this an a teaching experience to educate your client about the importance of asking permission, using Creative Commons, and possibly exploring whether what they are doing in some situations qualifies as fair use.

Option #2: Your Client Understands but Disregards Others’ Copyright Rights
Fire your client.

This person is obviously an idiot. No money is worth being affiliated with this company. Run away as fast as you can.

Footnote: Every company should have a “No Jerks” rule when it comes to employees and clients. If you find someone violating this rule at a genetic level (not just having a bad day), cut all ties with them immediately.

The same rules about copyright that apply to your website also apply to your social media posts:

Whenever I work on a contract for the relationship between a company and an outside content provider, I always recommend that my client require an indemnity clause that will protect them if they are accused of intellectual property infringement based on material provided by the other party. Your contract is the master document for your working relationship. It should clearly define the parties’ obligations to each other which should include deadlines and deliverables and also how you will resolve problems when they occur.

If you want to know more about the complex issues related to copyright and the internet, please check out The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you want to chat with me about this topic, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Supreme Court Rules on Social Media & Free Speech – What It Means

Man Holding Laptop Computer Typing While Dog Watches by Image Catalog from Flickr (Public Domain)

Man Holding Laptop Computer Typing While Dog Watches by Image Catalog from Flickr (Public Domain)

Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court released its ruling on the first social media free speech case.

Anthony Elonis was previously convicted for violating a federal law for posting threatening messages on his own Facebook page. The court that convicted him did so based on the negligence standard, which is whether a reasonable person would interpret his statements as threats.

The Supreme Court ruled that the lower court used the wrong standard in making its decision. A court can’t use the reasonable person standard to decide cases like this – it has to be higher standard than that.

So what happens now? The Supreme Court sent the Elonis case back down to the lower court. The lower court will have to decide whether it should apply the recklessness standard or whether it should examine Elonis’ intent behind the posts in question.

What does this mean for other cases, perhaps those involving domestic violence or cyber harassment? We’ll see. All we know now is that the court has to apply a higher standard than simply asking whether a reasonable person who interpret a statement as a threatening. We will have to wait and see what standard will ultimately apply.

Legal Side of Blogging Book CoverDo I think the Supreme Court made the right decision? Yes. Words are clumsy beasts, especially on social media where we deal with words without inflection and non-verbal cues to decipher what the speaker is saying. I don’t want to see people punished for being inarticulate when exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. We need to examine the statement in the context in which it was made when determining whether a statement violates a criminal law.

As always, think before you post. Don’t use this decision as a license to post whatever you want online. You can face serious repercussions criminally, civilly, and socially for what you post on the internet. If you want to read more about this situation, I highly recommend a post written by my fellow legal eagle, Mitch Jackson. If you’re looking for a resource about internet and social media law, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.

If you want to chat more about free speech and the internet, please contact me directly or connect with me on social media via TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Richard Prince’s “New Portraits” – Art or Infringement?

Photo courtesy of Gagosian via Gothamist

Photo courtesy of Gagosian via Gothamist

A few people sent me links to articles about Richard Prince’s art show called “New Portraits” at Gagosian gallery. He took screen shots of other people’s Instagram photos, added one comment, and is selling them for $100,000 each. From what I’ve read, he never asked any of the Instagram users for permission to use their images and they aren’t getting any of the profits from the sales.

Apparently Prince has done things like this before – taking others’ work, altering it, and selling it. According to reports, he’s been challenged in court and won in previous situations. (Fair use is a portion of the copyright law that allows others to build on other’s work in original ways, like adding commentary, creating a parody, or making new artistic statements.) Prince’s history of being victorious in the courtroom might make these Instagram users hesitate to bring a lawsuit against him now, but I’m not convinced they would lose.

There is no cut-and-dry, black-and-white mathematical equation that will definitively show whether what a person did constitutes fair use or copyright infringement. That is up to a court to decide based on the merits of the case. The court can consider any evidence it wants in these situations, but there are four main fair use factors. I created an acronym of the fair use factors when I spoke at Phoenix Comicon last year on fan art and copyright. The acronym for the fair use factors is PAIN:

P = Purpose and character of your use

A = Amount of the original used

I = Impact on the market

N = Nature of the work you copied

Here’s my take on how the fair use factors apply to this situation:

  • P (Purpose): Prince used others’ work for a commercial purpose (to make money) and didn’t transform the originals except to add a single comment to each one and create a collection. (Does not favor Fair Use)
  • A (Amount): Prince took screen shots of each user’s Instagram profile and used an entire photo. (Does not favor Fair Use)
  • I (Impact on the market): As far as I know, Prince is the only person currently selling these images, but the fact that he’s selling them could impact the original artists’ ability to sell their work. The fact that Prince is selling these prints doesn’t change whether these images are available to view the original images online. (Weak argument for finding Fair Use at best)
  • N (Nature of copied work): Prince took images from a social media platform and created “art.” There might be an argument that the audience that would seek these images out online is different than an audience who would be interested in Prince’s work. (Weak argument for finding Fair Use.)

Do I think this is fair use? No, but I’m not the judge in this situation. We won’t know for certain until and unless the Instagram users’ whose photos were used in Prince’s work bring lawsuits against him for copyright infringement. I suspect many or all of these photos are “selfies” so these individuals may have a claim against him for commercializing their images without consent as well as a copyright infringement case.

Remember, fair use is a defense, not a permission slip. If these users sue for copyright infringement, Richard Prince would have the burden of showing that what he did was sufficient to qualify for fair use.

Fair use cases are usually complicated. If you want to chat more about fair use and copyright, please contact me directly or connect with me on social media via TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

More articles about this situation:
Artist Steals Instagram Photos & Sells Them For $100K At NYC Gallery
Richard Prince Sucks