Sunday, September 27, 2009

Copyright Issues

I understand that when someone creates something, they own it and the copyright for it. Of course, if someone were to take that item and use it, they would be violating the copyright. But who would know?

Truth is nobody would know unless they came across the item and knew it was theirs or belonged to someone else they knew. When that is discovered, the original owner must be able to provide the proof that they do hold the copyright.

There are a couple of ways to copyright something. You can apply to the government for a copyright and it will be officially registered with the US Copyright Office. Another approach is to mail a copy to yourself and not to open the package. Tell the post office what you are doing and they will seal all the edges and hand stamp each seal. If you have to take someone to court about violating your copyright, you can produce the sealed package as proof you own it.

The real message here is for you to make sure you are not violating someone else's copyright. It is a principle I speak often of when teaching Web Development classes. If you create it, you own it. If you Google it and copy/paste you are probably stealing it. Want to use a picture in your work, grab your digital camera and take it yourself. Do not grab it off the Web.

If you really like the work someone else has done, contact them and ask permission to use it. In most cases, they will grant permission. Sometimes they ask that you give them credit for it by including a link to their site or their email address. Do not just use their image and hope you do not get caught.

Of course, you can purchase thousands of royalty free images on CD's over on the Web and in your local office supply stores. These can be used without worrying about the copyright because when you bought the package you received a license to use the items that came with it. Make sure that license allows you to use it publically and not just on documents you print out. It will usually not allow you to use the items for sale to others.

A few weeks ago, I received a lawyer's letter telling me I had violated the copyright on an image used on one of my Web sites. This was a simple graphic I had added in 1999—10 years ago. The letter said I needed to prove I had a license to use the image or be prepared to be sued for up to $25,000!

I had no idea where I found that image. I could not believe that I found it on the Web and copy/pasted it into my site. This was against all I had been teaching for years. However, I could not remember anything about the image. Well, I removed it from my site and copies of it from my computers.

This was good, but they still wanted payment for its use. We negotiated down to a reasonable figure and were just wrapping things up when, in my work of cleaning out for our move, I came across a CD of royalty free images I had purchase in 1996.

You guessed it; the image was on that CD. I was able to prove I had a license to use it and did not have to pay any penalty.

So remember, if you use someone else's item like an image or picture, get permission in some form and SAVE IT where you can find it later. Ten years down the road you may be challenged and have to pay a huge penalty for not keeping good records.

I suggest keeping your documentation right in the folder you have the work (Web page, document, etc). If it comes from a CD, scan the license into a PDF and keep it in the folder. If it was an email giving you permission, save the email in the folder.

Be careful as there are people out their searching the Web for unauthorized usage of their work with the intent to collect large sums of money for your failure to abide by the copyright laws or being lax in keeping good records of your work.