What Your Business Needs to Know About Copyright Law (Intellectual Property 101)

Marketers who do not grasp copyright and intellectual property laws face a tarnished image and costly lawsuits.

The Internet has become the primary advertising medium for most businesses. Many advertisers don’t realize that just because something is available on the internet, it is *not* available for their use. By copying someone else’s work, they often inadvertently violate someone else’s intellectual property (IP) rights.

Infringement happens when one person uses another person’s work as their own, either unknowingly or deliberately. It is important to recognize the scope of these laws in order to protect yourself and your company from infringing on these rights – or getting your property stolen.

Copyrights protect any type of published image or text, but trademarks have a much higher degree of protection. Violating a trademark often causes more damage to the trademark owner than violating someone’s copyright, which is why trademarks have much stronger enforcement rules (and much higher damages awarded).

That is not to say that copyrights are not strong, or that you will not run into trouble if you steal someone else’s work.

Be aware that if you employ third-party marketers, you can be held liable if the third-party also infringes on another person’s intellectual property rights. Here is a list of the most common copyright and intellectual property infringements in the marketing industry.

Common marketing blunders that infringe someone’s copyright

Since imagery and content are taken from all over the internet and other media, marketing is especially vulnerable to infringement errors. All online content is protected by copyright or trademark, and some of the owners go to some length to ensure that their work is deliberately or unintentionally pirated.

You should assume that anything on the web is protected – unless the owner specifically says it is free to use.

For all content taken from the web, be sure that the copyright owner has given permission. Some sites are designed to share images for free, such as Unsplash, Freestocks.org, and many others.

Another marketing blunder is to copy the text from another website. It is bad form to blindly copy and paste someone else’s blog post or advertising content. There are plagiarism tools, such as Quetext, which can verify that your content has not been copied from somewhere else on the web.

Copying one page – or a whole website – and how to handle the problem.

In extreme cases, an entire website can be copied by a competitor. This happens far more often than you might think.

A small company sold coaching services for a niche customer base. The owner put a lot of effort into her website, including the colors, icons, images, but most of all the text. She had many blog posts, as well as carefully designed and tested calls to actions, descriptions of the products, and so on. She offered several downloads, such as checklists, basic website templates, suggested advertising copy for her clients, and more.

One day someone pointed out that an overseas company had copied her website and called it their own. They copied everything about the website, but made a few minor replacements. For example, the owner had testimonials from several clients, and the thief merely changed the pictures of the testimonials. On one webpage, the thief had even left the original owner’s email address on the page!

The small company had her attorney execute a DCMA Take Down Notice against the website provider. Under the DCMA law, a hosting provider must take down a website that violates a copyright. In this case, the hosting provider did exactly that – the offending website was removed permanently.

Infringement on the “Fair Use” Principle

The definition of “fair use” allows you to use copyrighted content in a limited yet “transformative” way, such as commenting on someone else’s work within your own. It is not copyright infringement to copy a paragraph from someone else’s blog post within quotes, then to add your own explanation. If you do use someone else’s work like this, you should always link back or give credit for the source.

Are memes fair use of someone else’s copyrighted images? Probably, but you are not immune to getting sued.

Avoid False Advertising

False advertisement that misleads the audience is a criminal offense in and of itself. To be clear: criminal offenses mean you go to jail if convicted. This is much more severe than just paying a fine. If the published content still violates copyright or trademarks, the legal consequences intensify. As a result, make sure that all of your publications, including your promotional materials, are reliable and truthful, and that you properly cite your sources.

Marketers run the risk of being sued and facing large damages charges if they improperly publish the work of another as their own proprietary content. If the mistake was unintentional, maybe your punishment will be reduced. However, if you publish without doing thorough research for ownership, your exposure will skyrocket.