Copyright laws protect the rights of people who create or own creative works such as books, articles, movies and photographs. It might seem as though avoiding copyright infringement should be as simple as not taking someone else's work and claiming it as your own, but copyright laws offer broad protections to copyright holders. Business owners unfamiliar with copyright laws may inadvertently violate another person's copyright, and this violation can carry stiff penalties.
Using Others' Works
Any original, creative work is eligible for copyright protection, and copyright holders don't have to place a copyright symbol on the item or register the copyright to claim copyright infringement. Consequently, any time you use any item that is not yours, you may be violating copyright laws. For example, using an image from someone's website or a search engine on your own website could be copyright infringement. Copying a work, even for personal use -- such as making a copy of a book to distribute in a business meeting -- can also be copyright infringement. The surefire recipe for avoiding copyright infringement is to never use any work that is not yours without getting permission to do so.
Contacting Copyright Holders
If you find a creative item you want to use, you'll need to contact the copyright holder to get permission. Search for the copyrighted item on the U.S. Copyright Office website to locate the copyright holder. While not all copyrighted items are registered, if it is registered, this resource can help you locate the owner. You can also contact site owners or publishing and distribution companies for creative works such as books and videos. You'll need to get explicit, written permission to use the item, and the copyright holder can charge you a licensing fee for your use.
Read More: Pros & Cons of Copyright Laws
Fair use is an exception to copyright laws that allows people to use limited excerpts for scholarly, nonprofit or educational purposes. For example, you could excerpt a book as part of a book review or show part of a movie for a college class. There is no legally codified list of specific fair uses and no specific limit on the size of excerpts, so determining whether something constitutes fair use can be challenging. If you're not sure, you should contact the copyright holder. Even if your use of an item falls under the fair use exception, you'll still need to credit the original source.
Penalties for Violation
If you violate copyright laws, the copyright owner can sue you for financial damages she incurred as a result. For example, if an author sells fewer copies of a book because you are distributing the book for free online, she could sue you for the cost of each free book. In addition to actual damages, copyright violators can also be sued for amounts between $200 and $150,000 for each violation. Deliberate, willful or repeated copyright violations can also carry a prison sentence.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.