7 Tips for Avoiding Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement is a serious offense. Not only does it look bad, but it can also seriously ruin lives. Think of copyright infringement as a step up from plagiarism with some major legal consequences. In other words, you should put avoiding copyright infringement on your bucket list forever.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Copyright is one of the categories of intellectual property (IP), and its purpose is to ensure that individual artistic works are protected from those who would steal them and profit unfairly. This covers written work, songs, pictures and videos, and more. The U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 was passed by Congress, and as such, it affects all 50 states in the union.

While we will discuss this in more detail below, for now, the important thing to know is that it’s critical to avoid copyright infringement, whether you’re a student or a professional. As a student, it more often will result in academic consequences, potentially including leaving school. As a professional, the stakes are higher because you’re expected to know better. Lawsuits aren’t out of the question at all. Understanding exactly how to avoid copyright infringement with images, media and writing is therefore paramount in your work – and is the subject of this article.

First, we’ll talk about copyright protection and infringement as defined by the U.S. Copyright Office. Then we will discuss the different types of copyright, the penalties of copyright infringement, and eight important tips to avoid it. If you’re intent on making sure there’s no copyright infringement in your work, here’s everything you need to learn how to do it.

What is Copyright Infringement?

There are several facets to copyright infringement. As stated above, copyright infringement is a type of IP, certifying that the creator of any original work in a tangible medium has exclusive rights to it. As long as there is an element of unique creativity to the artistic work, the copyright holder can claim it as theirs. The second a work is documented, it is protected by the copyright act. This means several things:

  • The work can use the copyright symbol when written about.
  • Anyone who references the work must do so with attribution, so that people who see the work outside its native environment (the creator’s website, say) will know that it belongs to that artist and falls under copyright protection.
  • The work is NOT in the public domain, which means “fair use” of the work is restricted to short quotations or snippets of writing and songs, usually only for review purposes. For images and visual art, they are likely entirely protected from use on a blog or in a book without express permission from the creator, their representative, or their estate.
  • If an organization or company creates the work, they can be copyright owners as well.
  • In addition to being unable to use the work, others cannot create derivative works of an artist’s work without falling subject to copyright infringement.
  • The work cannot be performed or displayed publicly without permission from the original creator, their estate, or their representative.
  • Copyright protection times range from 95 to 120 years for works created after 1978, and for those created before, there are different timelines. A copyright lawyer will know what those timelines are even if you don’t, so beware.

Different Types of Copyright

The US Copyright Office has five different application forms, depending on what type of work you want to register. These include:

  • Literary: books, poetry, blog posts, articles
  • Visual: illustrations, paintings, computer programs, photographs, blueprints
  • Single Series: related works created under a single umbrella, like serial fiction or illustrations
  • Performing Arts: plays, spoken word art, movies
  • Sound Recording: songs, sound recordings, musical compositions

Types of Copyright Infringement

As there are so many types of copyright, there are similarly many, many types of copyright infringement. Some examples include, but are not limited to using:

  • Long passages from books without proper attribution
  • Poems, blog posts, articles, or other written works in your own work
  • Someone’s data or scientific findings in your written work without attribution
  • Music clips in a video without permission from the musical creator
  • Architectural drawings or plans in a building without the creator’s permission
  • Graphics or sounds from a computer program
  • Plays for performances without the permission of the playwright
  • Illustrations for a blog post or article

Note that this is only a tiny sampling of the ways copyright protects artistic works. Unless you’re an attorney, you are unlikely ever to understand the complete list of potential types of infringement, so you’re far better off erring on the side of caution. If you don’t, you could face serious consequences.

Penalties of Copyright Infringement

It’s not impossible to use parts of a copyrighted work in your work. For instance, you can buy or license copyrighted work, giving you permission to use it in limited ways according to the terms of the purchase. Barring very detailed agreements, though, you are not allowed to use others’ creative work without permission. Consequences of violating the exclusive rights of a copyright owner very depending on the copyright infringement claims. These can include:

  • Copyright notice telling you to desist from using the copyrighted work
  • Damages ranging from $750 to $30,000 per work infringed to the copyright holder for more minor infractions
  • For willful infringement, damages ranging up to $250,000
  • Infringer pays all court costs and legal fees
  • Imprisonment for up to 5 years

In other words, even light punishments are very extreme and are best avoided. Hence, here are seven tips to do just that.

Tips to Avoid Copyright Infringement

Many people, both students, and professionals, ask questions such as “How much do you have to change something to avoid copyright?” or “How to avoid copyright infringement on Facebook?” The answers to questions like these are all essentially the same. Preventing copyright infringement boils down to understanding the laws that apply, respecting the rights of copyright holders, and – most importantly – always doing your own work.

1. Understand Copyright Laws

Copyright laws protect physical, tangible work. It does not protect ideas or facts. So while you cannot use someone’s words verbatim without credit, you can use ideas that are prevalent to more than one person or are commonplace, because no one can own them. Even if you read that idea in one person’s book, unless it belongs only to them, it’s not theirs.

Note that when we say “ideas,” we’re not talking about characters, plot lines, or literary places, real or fictional. These belong to the people who create those stories, and creating derivative works based on them is not allowed.

One more important point to understand is that of the public domain. When something is in the “public domain,” it has been out of copyright for some time and is free for all to use and adapt as they see fit. You don’t even have to use a disclaimer that you’re doing so. An example of this would be the many retellings of Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan on the market today.

This is different from uncopyrighted work, however, which means that the person who created the work hasn’t yet copyrighted it. But they may, and at that time, your use of it may no longer be fair use. It’s better not to use uncopyrighted work, even if it isn’t currently protected.

2. Review Licensing Agreements

If you do have permission to use a piece of copyrighted work, make sure you completely understand what the terms are. For instance, you might purchase a license for a photo that allows you to use it 10 times. The 11th time, though, might not be legal. Similarly, you could buy a piece of art that is unlimited for personal use but can’t be sold. The minute you use that graphic in a commercial pursuit, you are at risk of copyright infringement. Always know what the license says, and don’t assume.

3. Ask for Permission

Many people get in trouble by relying on the idea that using only a certain piece of intellectual property is “fair use.” For instance, they may take short quotes or ideas without attribution, or with flimsy attribution that doesn’t enable the reader to trace it back to the original source. The thing about “fair use” is that the body of law surrounding it is extremely nebulous, and therefore you can’t know whether your actions are, in fact, fair use or not. Therefore it is best to stay on the right side of the law by avoiding the issue altogether. If you need to, ask a copyright lawyer.

4. Don’t Treat the Internet Like Creative Commons

We cannot say this strongly enough: Just because a work isn’t cited as belonging to someone else doesn’t mean it isn’t someone else’s property. The internet is particularly bad about this, and the abundance of unsourced work might lead you to believe that there really is that much “free” text and visual imagery available for use.

That’s not so. Anonymous and unsourced work is still someone else’s property unless specifically stated otherwise. For instance, an author might have a disclaimer on their page saying that all of their work is free to use. Or you might find images on a website such as Unsplash, whose artists can upload them for everyone to use without attribution.

If you do use text from books or the internet, make sure that you cite them properly. Pay attention to the citation styles assigned by your professor or boss and create your sources accordingly. Use a citation generator if you need help.

5. Check work for Plagiarism

You should always, always check your work for plagiarism – both yours and the author’s that you’re using. It is easy to assume that any source you’re citing is legitimate, but that’s often not the case. Try only to cite sources from books, articles, or other reputable publications. Blog posts, open-source dictionaries, and other crowd-sourced materials are suspect.

The unfortunate truth is if you’re caught using less-than-stellar sources, that could be a violation of ethics even if you had no idea. Similarly, even if you did not mean to plagiarize, you can still get in trouble for it.

6. Avoid Taking Over Projects or Pieces Started by Others

If you possibly can, don’t take on work begun by others. You never know what standards they adhered to, and the law will not forgive you if you have a hand in work that includes copyright infringement. If you really have to take on a project someone else started, rewrite everything from the beginning.

Note that article rewriter tools are not ethical, and are not a good way to get the job done “while avoiding plagiarism.” Typically, they just rearrange work, and with the variety of article checkers available today, will get you caught fast.

7. Document Your Work Carefully

You should always document your own creative work at every stage of the process. Not only does this help you if you ever plan to become a copyright holder, but it can help protect you from copyright infringement claims. Save drafts, email your work to yourself, keep source lists along the way, and always use citations, even in early drafts.

Closing Thoughts

Instead of carefully culling through legal volumes and internet articles to figure out whether you can use someone’s original work in a certain way, it’s better to stick to the spirit of the law. You can avoid copyright issues by using others’ work for informational purposes only.

One of the easiest things you can do to protect yourself is to use a plagiarism checker, which will point out potential issues for you and help you correct them quickly. That way, your work is free of copyright infringement and soley consists of good, solid, honest work.