On the Web, many bloggers and other creators are comfortable with at least limited reuse of their work. Though fair use protects a lot of the actual copying that takes place, especially on blogs, many don’t mind if others go beyond that, so long as they receive credit and the use isn’t hurting their bottom line.
However, the majority of bloggers, photographers and other creators, at this time, do not provide clear content licensing terms. They instead either don’t think about the issue at all or just rely on Web conventions and common courtesy to function as a license.
Unfortunately though, not licensing your content is a poor move for many different reasons. Whether you want to use an “All Rights Reserved” license, a Creative Commons one or something else, it is important to express your licensing terms, both for your sake and for the better of the whole Web.
Simply put, not doing so hurts yourself, your visitors and, through proxy, the rest of the Web.
How it Helps You
The biggest problem with not licensing your work is that others, when they visit your site, are going to believe a variety of different things about what they can do with your content. Unfortunately, many of these beliefs will be very wrong. Some will think they can do with your content as they please, usually following the “no copyright symbol, no copyright” fallacy, others will think the opposite, that they can’t do anything with your work at all and prevent them from using your work in a way you would have likely approved.
Though it is true that others can ask permission to use your work, many will not think to, others will not want to and some may not be able to due to time constraints. Being clear and upfront is a better solution for everyone.
Also, a clear and proper license also gives you greater legal protection over your work. Without an actual license, the use of your content becomes governed by an implied license, which is open to interpretation and is determined by looking at your actions with the work. An actual license can mitigate the danger of an implied license, ensuring that your content is used exactly as you intended it.
In addition, depending on how the license is affixed to the work, it may be considered copyright management information (CMI), which adds another avenue for a lawsuit, should an infringement rise to that, and it can be especially useful when suing for infringements of works that were not registered at the time of the infringement.
In short, properly licensing your work, and ensuring that the license is affixed correctly, provides your readers with clear direction on how to use your content and gives you greater legal certainty as well as greater legal protection.
If you don’t license your work well, you are taking a gamble with your content that you may not be able to afford.
How it Helps the Web
Currently, on the Web, there are countless different strategies for how people want their content used. Some license their work to the public domain, or as near as they can get, others favor a strict “All Rights Reserved” approach. Right now, there is no “standard” Web license.
However, since most sites don’t provide an adequate license, users usually wind up creating their own rules, often based on misinformation. They develop standards for how they interact with other people’s content, regardless of what the creators want and, in many cases, what the law actually says. These standards turn into habits that, in turn, become common practice.
Since most copyright infringements on the Web go undetected and aren’t addressed, one can go quite a long ways before a copyright holder discovers what they are doing and moves to stop it. This can create a very ugly and very avoidable conflict that both makes the copyright holder look like an extremist and scare off others from using any work, even when they would have permission.
In short, no one wins with these types of copyright conflicts. The ideal default behavior for those looking for content should be to check the license first, but with such a small minority of the Web’s content licensed correctly, it is very difficult convince people to do that. Furthermore, with so many myths and misunderstandings about copyright floating around, conflicts are bound to happen.
In short, if we don’t want users to create habits that run counter to how we want our content to be used, we should express those terms clearly and enforce them professionally and reasonably. This, in turn, protects everyone. If everyone gets used to reading and following the licenses, there are fewer copyright conflicts, fewer accidental infringements and, most likely, more sharing.
However, to make that practical, a large percentage of content needs to be appropriately licensed. If we don’t, we have to realize that visitors will be coming to our sites with habits and notions that run counter to our own and, even if we do license our content, those licenses are more likely to be overlooked, ignored and missed simply because they are so rare and visitors don’t fully know what to look for.
Though it may seem like Creative Commons is everywhere and as if every site has a copyright license, the simple truth is that most do not. Part of this is because many major content hosts, such as image sharing and social networking sites, don’t offer easy ways for users to license their work. Part of it though is sheer ignorance of the need or unwillingness to act.
The simple truth is that the vast majority of the work uploaded to the Web does not have any licensing terms attached to it, leaving others to guess at what the true intent of the copyright holder is. This, in turn, has created a lot of problems for the Web.
Personally, I’ve always been a big fan of Creative Commons licenses and have a great deal of respect for the work that they do. But whether you choose a CC license, a regular copyright license or something else different altogether, it is important to make your intentions clear and to do so in a way that is legally sound.
Failure to do so not only puts you and your work in legal risk, but also makes it more difficult for others to enforce their rights or to give them away. It is very difficult to build a positive copyright climate on the Web when everyone is confused about what the exact rules are.
No matter where on the spectrum between public domain and all rights reserved you sit, it is important to make yourself clear. It only takes a moment and, in terms of your copyright, may be the single most important step you take.