Copyright Law on the Internet Is a Total Train Wreck Right Now

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Pamela Vaughan
Pamela Vaughan



I'm going to tell you a little story, but before I do, a warning: It ain't pretty.

It's a perfectly fine Thursday afternoon. I'm going about my business, happily editing a blog post, when I get an email from the head of HubSpot's legal department. Oh boy. 

Apparently, he'd received a letter from a popular stock photography website claiming we had wrongfully used two of their images on our blog. 

My first thought was, "What? This must be a mistake." We're very good about only using photos and images we have permission to use on the blog. As a result, we usually either purchase stock photos or use images sourced from sites like Flickr licensed under Creative Commons, which is a nonprofit offering easy-to-use copyright licenses that make it easy for people to give permission for others to share and use their creative work. In fact, we've even written about how not to steal people's content on the web, and what to do if you're a victim of stolen content. So ... what gives?

Download the free stock photos you've been searching for here, no attribution  required.

Here's What Happened

First, I asked our general counsel to forward me the email he'd received from the stock photography company. He couldn't; he had only a physical letter. No digital copy. No links to the incriminating blog posts. Just a couple pages of blurry, printed out screenshots of the two images in question along with several pages of legal mumbo jumbo. Umm ... seriously?

Luckily, it didn't take me a ton of sleuthing to recover the blog posts they were referring to. And just as I thought, it turns out we really did have only honest intentions when using these images. Scrolling to the bottom of the posts in question, I found our usual stamp of attribution for images procured from Flickr under a Creative Commons license. So ... can you guess what happened?

Yup -- we'd been duped. Apparently, a couple of Flickr users got these images from the stock photography site, uploaded them to Flickr, and then slapped Creative Commons licenses onto them. Not cool, dudes. Not cool.  

And whether these two people had initially purchased these photos is beside the point. We hadn't purchased the rights to these images, and they were on our site. But the thing is ... we didn't know they were stock images. We had simply put good faith in the Creative Commons licenses that were attached to them, and thus, believed they were fair game. Well, so much for good faith.

This Is Some Scary Stuff

With complete respect for copyright law, we did the right thing and replaced the two rogue images on our blog immediately. But I'm sure you can see how this whole experience has much bigger implications than just this one isolated incident. 

The scary thing is, essentially, there's nothing preventing someone from just stamping something with a Creative Commons license even if isn't theirs to license -- just like the two Flickr users did in our case. This ease of use is both a beauty and a drawback of Creative Commons. While it's a great way for creators to let the world know how they can use their content, there's no true way to tell whether it's really the property of that person to license in the first place.

Here's what Creative Commons has to say about it on its website's FAQ:

"What happens if someone applies a Creative Commons license to my work without my knowledge or authorization?
CC alerts prospective licensors they need to have all necessary rights before applying a CC license to a work. If that is not the case and someone has marked your work with a CC license without your authorization, you should contact that person and tell them to remove the license from your work. You may also wish to contact a lawyer. Creative Commons is not a law firm and cannot represent you or give you legal advice, but there are lawyers who have identified themselves as interested in representing people in CC-related matters."

What's worse -- we recommend Creative Commons-licensed images to content creators seeking a low-cost (in this case, no-cost) alternative to pricey stock photography all the time. But can it really be trusted? What's a content creator to do? 

The Problems With Copyright Law and the Web 

Big stock photography sites are cashing in on instances like this one all the time, identifying sites without rights to their images and slamming them with hefty fines accompanied by threats of legal action. And if you're a small business, these blows could be devastating, especially if you didn't even know you were in the wrong in the first place. In fact, we've seen it happen to some of our own customers. It's kind of a problem.

And most of the problem stems from the fact that copyright laws are nowhere near aligned with how people use the web. Content sharing is a huge part of how the internet works. Now, don't get me wrong. We're definitely against violating copyright law -- we never would've used those images had we known they were stock photos -- but I think we can agree that there's a huge need for some internet-friendly copyright laws. My co-worker (funny enough, his name is Jay) likened the problem to jaywalking, which is technically illegal -- but should you really get fined for it? And lawmakers just aren't getting it right. (Remember last year's SOPA scare?)

One problem is that there are a lot of people out there who either don't understand the laws that already exist or just don't get how the internet works. In fact, just today we were contacted by a company whose image (which is legitimately licensed under Creative Commons) we'd used in a recent blog post. Although we had properly attributed them in accordance with the Creative Commons license they were using, they claimed our use was in violation of the copyright and provided us with a specific URL to link back to instead. They didn't want us to remove the image; they were just looking for a very specific inbound link. We simply removed the image altogether. 

The point is, there are a lot of people setting out on wild goose chases like this one, whether or not it's warranted. And if you're the target of these accusations by someone who isn't exactly up to snuff on copyright law, and you don't have your own legal department, it can be a really scary and confusing thing. (And for the people setting out on these wild goose chases -- is it really worth it? You tell me.)

Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles is the fact that there are so many different use cases for content sharing and usage online. Just think about how different your intentions are when you're using or sharing content as a marketer, compared to when you're using or sharing content for personal reasons. Our social media manager uses Pinterest for both professional and personal reasons. Her pinning someone else's image as HubSpot (which has a large reach) is much different than her pinning someone else's image as Brittany.

Whether you care if someone steals or uses your content will also largely depend on the situation. Someone blatantly stealing, say, a blog article from a big, well-established business and publishing it as their own may not be worth it for that big business to go after. But if that blog post is stolen from a very small business? That could actually be pretty damaging to them.

As a result, one sweeping law is never going to cut it. On a web where visual content is a powerful weapon for marketers, this isn't a problem that's going to go away. In fact, it'll probably only get worse. So, again ... what's a content creator to do?

We Need Something Better

I really wish I had a great answer for you. But unfortunately, I think this is something someone still needs to figure out. The good news is, I think there's hope. Consider the history of the music industry and piracy on the web. A stock photography site that comes up with the image-borrowing equivalent of Pandora and Spotify could have something pretty amazing up its sleeves. 

We've already started to see businesses come out with their own guidelines that govern how people are welcome to use and share their content. In fact, we have our own set right here. Content sharing sites like Pinterest are also putting safeguards in place, like a feature that allows businesses to prevent Pinterest users from pinning content from specific pages on their websites. But there's still a need for something more -- something that appeals to the users and the sharers, not just the originators. 

For the time being, our best advice (although we're in no position to give you official legal advice) is to be careful. Brush up on copyright laws (check out this overview of fair use on the SEOmoz blog and this post from Plagiarism Today about the different types of copyright infringement) so you know what you are and aren't allowed to use and share on the web -- and so you don't get taken advantage of by people accusing you of being in the wrong. Be wary of content under free copyright licenses like Creative Commons, and do your due diligence to make sure that the image is really that person's to license. If you're not sure and the image is questionable, just avoid using it altogether. If you're on a budget, there are quite a few free stock photo websites out there to source images from, such as stock.xchng.

And stay strong. It's a crazy web out there.

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Topics: Copywriting

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