Copyright 101. A basic overview of copyright for bloggers, creatives, and online shop owners.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I’m just a blogger, designer, creative, and business owner who is big on doing the right thing. This is not legal advice. This is what I’ve learned regarding copyright and trademarking…and what I believe you should do as a good person with integrity. Ignorance doesn’t hold up in court. If you choose to create things to sell, run a blog, shop, or business, it is your responsibility to get educated on the laws. Yes, the legalese can be gray and overwhelming, so you may even need to seek the help of a professional for things you don’t understand. (And yes, that may cost you some money).
The best way to tell if something is copyrighted: If you did not create it yourself, someone else did. Respect that fact.
What is copyright? Do I have to file for it?
Copyright is the protection of your work. You don’t have to file for it. The moment you create something, it’s copyrighted. It’s always a good idea to watermark your work and add a © whenever you can.
Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.
-U.S. Copyright Office
Registering a Copyright
This is the only real way to enforce your copyright. In simple terms, it makes it easier to win a claim should you go to court over your copyrighted work. I registered my ebook for this type of copyright. It cost me $55. You can read more about registering for copyright and/or file for it here.
Is Copyright the same as a Trademark?
No. While Copyright is “automatic” you must file and pay to trademark something. You can use the USPTO Trademark Database Search to see if something is already trademarked or pending trademark. You can trademark a symbol, word, or words (and it can be pricey to do).
Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions or discoveries. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others. -U.S. Copyright Office
What is Commercial Use?
Anything you sell, even to your Aunt Sue, is considered commercial use. There are a lot of free fonts, free clip art, and free stock photos out there BUT most free things are for personal use only. Commercial use usually requires you to pay a fee to the designer.
You can Violate Copyright Law Even on Things You Don’t Sell
Sometimes, even things you post without selling can violate copyright law. See this post for more details.
How Do I Know if a Quote is Public Domain?
Read a great post on determining if a quote is public domain here.
But Everyone Else is Doing It
When I hear adults say this, it blows my mind. What do we tell our kids when they say that? The same principle applies here. Just because you see other people doing it on Etsy or elsewhere does NOT make it legal (and it certainly isn’t kind!). Most licensed characters and sports logos are trademarked and selling things using them without express permission from the trademark owner can get your shop shut down (not to mention some very hefty fines). Many companies will send a warning letter first, but that’s not always the case.
For crafters and designers, we have software that allows us to “trace” images from Google and anywhere on the Web really. While this is an awesome design tool, it also means a lot of people are stealing work that doesn’t belong to them.
Speaking of Google…
I Got it off Google
You can’t just pull things from Google images. People own the rights to the designs, clip art, and photos you find via Google. So, you can’t (legally) just pull an image off Google to use to make a t-shirt with your Silhouette machine and you can’t use an image you found via Google as a stock photo on your blog.
Unsplash.com is a great, legit place to get free photos.
No One Will Know
They’re a big company, you’re a small business. They won’t know right? Wrong. I’ve seen many an Etsy shop get shut down. Disney is notorious for protecting its trademarks. And they should be. It’s not fair for you to make money off someone else’s work. Intentionally doing something just because you think you won’t get caught shows a lack of integrity.
I Modified the Design. Now it’s Mine.
Maybe. Unless the modification really makes it into a whole new work, that argument usually doesn’t hold up in court. It’s not really worth the risk if you ask me!
I Credited the Author/Creator so it’s Fine to Share It.
Let’s say you’re a blogger and are writing a roundup post featuring other people’s work. You’re just using one image and linking back to their post. So that should be fine to do, right?
This is another maybe. Maybe the copyright owner won’t mind. But maybe they will. The copyright owner has the legal right to control how their original work is used, so it’s always best to get permission.
I have a note on my blog that says people are welcome to use one image and link back to my post. However, many of the bigger companies such as Babble (Disney) and Good Housekeeping email me to get my permission if they want to use some of my work in an article. Even when properly credited, this is the best way to protect yourself legally.
PERSONAL PET PEEVE: Instagram photo sharing. If you share someone’s photo there credit them in the caption, don’t just tag them in the photo. Most people don’t check the tags. The proper and kind way to credit them is right in the caption of the photo.
Designers work hard to create things. Their work is how they pay their bills and feed their families. Stealing someone else’s work is just plain not cool. If you see a design or font you like that offers commercial use, pay for it. Would you want someone stealing your work and selling it? I don’t think so!
Copyright Myths Explained
This is a great post on 10 Big Myths about Copyright Explained.
When all else fails, think about what the kind thing to do is. Treat others work as you’d want your own treated.
So Where Can I Get Fonts/Images/Clip Art I can Legally Use?
- FONTS: I purchase all mine from Creative Market (sign up for their email…they send 6 freebies every Monday) and The Hungry Jpeg (check out their $1 deals, freebies, and bundles sections).
- CLIPART: I get most of mine via Creative Market or Etsy.
- PHOTOS: I use Creative Market and Unsplash.
- MOCKUPS: I get many of mine via Creative Market and Etsy.
- CUT FILES & SVGS: I use the Silhouette Design Store or design my own!