Like any area of law, the arena of copyright is complex, complicated and confusing.
A branch of intellectual property rights intended to protect recorded works, copyright has become difficult to understand – and, by extension, difficult to know whether you’re complying with the law or in breach of it.
In this guide, we explain the fundamentals of copyright law, how to avoid breaching it, and what you can include on your website under fair use guidelines (plus, scroll to the bottom for further resources if you need legal advice).
What is copyright and what does it apply to?
Copyright arises when a certain piece of work is created. For copyright to apply, the work must be original and demonstrate a degree of labour, skill or judgement in its creation.
Copyright applies to these creations of literary, musical or artistic work, giving the creator the right to control how those works are used.
It cannot apply to names (like titles or short phrases) or colours, because they are not considered substantial or unique enough to warrant protection. However, if they are arranged together (like a logo) they may be covered by copyright law.
Creations in the digital sphere aren’t exempt, despite what some urban myths might say – copyright will generally apply to anything you see online, like pictures and video. You may be allowed to re-use content freely for non-commercial purposes, but re-use for commercial purposes can be expensive.
There are also a few other well-known forms of intellectual property protection – see our checklist here.
How long does copyright last for?
Length of copyright varies depending on the type of work: but for literary, musical or artistic works, copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author.
So any text (literary) or pictures and images, videos, or infographics (artistic) which you find online is protected by copyright – for a very long time. Reusing old material is just as risky as using new material, so make sure you obtain permission to reuse content.
However, there is no breach if the copyright has expired.
What constitutes a breach of copyright?
Using material without the permission of the copyright holder, or using and failing to credit material, all count as breaches of copyright.
Using chunks of work – a substantial clip of a video, for example – outside of the fair dealing exceptions (explained below) is likely to breach copyright.
You could end up in legal difficulties if you’re found to be using copyright-protected material, so making sure you’re aware of the boundaries is important.
What is fair use?
Fair use (also called fair dealing or fair practice) allows certain use of copyrighted materials without causing a breach of copyright.
There are some principles which underpin “fair usage”: any use of copyrighted materials must be for non-commercial research, for criticism or review, or for the reporting of current events. Any material used must also cite the name of the piece and the original author.
Fair use is generally not applicable to businesses that have used copyright-protected material.
Where can I find material for my website?
If you can afford to pay for content, you can commission a third party – a copywriter or graphic designer, for example – to produce content for you. This is a premium option; it could cost a lot of money, but it will also stand out and ease your mind as you will have whole ownership of the creation.
Alternatively, you can avoid copyright issues altogether by designing, creating and publishing your own content – designs, words, pictures or videos – of which you will be the copyright holder. If your designs draw inspiration from someone or somewhere else, make sure your designs are substantially different and as unique as possible.
If all you need is pictures and videos, you can subscribe to stock image websites (RGB Stock, PixaBay and Unsplash are all free to use). Resources like these are a good compromise, giving a professional finish to your materials. Alternatively you can opt for paid-for stock image site subscriptions – they’re not free, but they will have a greater range of ‘stock’ available, and will still be cheaper than commissioned work.
If you’re looking to save money in this area, you can produce your own content – click here for a fool-proof way to create amazing graphic design work (even if you’re not a designer). If you haven’t got time to design things, search engines will find whatever you’re looking for, and they have filters which can help you; just click ‘Tools’ then ‘Usage rights’ to see the options. ‘Labelled for reuse’ is the filer which applies for commercial applications.