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Copyright And Businesses: Why SMEs Need To Educate Themselves
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Copyright And Businesses: Why SMEs Need To Educate Themselves


Following a few basic rules can make all the difference.


We’ve written before about how important it is for business owners to know about defamation, slander and libel. But it’s not the only aspect of media law they need to consider, now they’re all able to publish content on their websites and social media. Just as importantly, businesses should also know a bit about copyright – including the potential consequences of infringement.

As with our article about defamation, this is not meant to replace legal advice, which you should get from an appropriate professional, but hopefully it will give you a few pointers regarding the basics of copyright and how stay on the right side of the law.

Why Do You Need To Know About Media Law?

All over the world, there are rules about what you can and can’t publish. Before the internet age, such rules mainly affected mainstream media companies like print publishers, TV production firms and radio broadcasters. Today, of course, anyone can create visual, written or audio content and immediately share it with millions of people around the world.

This digital revolution has been as comprehensive as it has fast. Practically every individual and business now has one or multiple social media profiles, and many also create and share content via blogs.

Much of this content is provided free of charge to the reader, either to make money from advertising or to promote a company’s services or products. But being free doesn’t bestow that content with any kind of legal immunity. Anything you share online that can be viewed by others is subject to media law.

It's not just online material you need to think about either. If you share printed content in a magazine, a leaflet or even a T-shirt or mug, you need to consider who owns the content you use.

Okay, So What’s Copyright?

Copyright symbol. Copyright in the UK is automatic and doesn't only apply where you see this symbol.

Quite simply, copyright is a legal principle that recognises and protects the ownership of works, such as books, films, pictures or music. In general, the creator of a work will automatically own the copyright to that work, but copyrights can be sold and given up, and workers will often find their employers owns the copyright to anything they produce during the course of their service (ultimately, this depends on the terms of their contract).

Copyright laws vary around the world, as do their application and conditions. Commonly, though, and certainly in the UK, they only last for a certain amount of time before expiring, whereupon the protected works become public domain.

And How Does Copyright Affect Businesses?

If you publish anyone else’s content without their permission, you are infringing their copyright. A clip from a movie, an image from a website, a snippet of a pop song – all are protected by copyright laws in the UK.

Hold on, you might say, but isn’t that the way the internet works? People just share things whenever and wherever they like, without ever thinking about copyright.

Very good point. Up till now the internet has been like the wild west, both celebrated and deplored for its liberalism and legal laxity. Meanwhile, governments and other authorities have struggled to police the web using traditional and seemingly out-of-date regulation.

All the same, copyright still applies, and while individuals might get away with breaking the rules, businesses should tread more carefully. If you’re seen to be profiting from the work of others without their permission, “everyone does it” is unlikely to be a successful excuse for your actions.

The Consequences Of Copyright Infringement

According to www.inbrief.co.uk:

“Copyright infringement is a civil wrong and where infringement occurs a claim may be brought by the copyright owner or a person who has an exclusive licence to the work through the civil courts. In certain circumstances copyright infringement can amount to a criminal offence as well.”

The words “as well” are particularly important here. Those who infringe on copyright can find themselves being sued by the copyright owner and prosecuted by authorities at the same time. So as well as potentially paying damages in a civil court, you could face fines and even prison from a criminal court.

That, however, is at the extreme end of possibilities. If, for example, you’ve infringed someone’s copyright by using an image from someone’s website on your own, there’s every chance they won’t ever know. And if they do find out, they might be happy to settle for a fair payment or simply a credit next to the picture. Indeed, a lot of people aren’t massively bothered by people sharing their images or videos if they’re properly attributed and links are provided to the original source. It’s just good manners, and it can avoid a whole lot of nastiness later.

Man in handcuffs. For people who deliberately and repeatedly infringe on copyright, custodial sentences are a very real possiblity.

Getting Copyright Right

As with our article on defamation, this piece is not intended as legal advice.Nevertheless, there are a few simple steps you can take to prevent your business getting into copyright-related legal trouble.

Use works that are copyright free or paid for

It’s extremely easy to find images via search engines such Google, but you should avoid using them in your blogs or social media posts without obtaining appropriate permission. The same goes with music and video. Instead use works that are in the public domain or that allow free use for commercial purposes. Also, consider purchasing royalty-free media from sites like Shutterstock, Freepik, Bensound and Videoblocks.

Give credit where it’s due

Some websites allow free use of their media, upon the proviso that full credit is given to its creator or source. If that’s the case, make sure you respect it. And if you’re going to go ahead and use someone else’s work without their permission, link back to where you found it. You’re still technically in the wrong, but many people will just be happy with the extra traffic to their website.

Inform all relevant staff

It’s no good if only one person in your organisation knows about copyright if there are multiple people who publish content on your behalf. Not only do you need to educate anyone who has access to your social media and website, but also anyone who creates physical content such as leaflets, brochures and catalogues.

Realise you’re a big fish

If your business infringes on someone’s copyright, then you may have benefitted financially from using their work. Both the rights owners and the authorities are more likely to take a dim view on that than they would with an individual. Businesses tend to have deeper pockets than individuals too, so civil action might seem more appealing to rights owners.

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