Setting Yourself Up for Copyright Infringement

Though there are many Web sites where one can find free, legal and high-quality images for their own use, stock.xchng (SXC) is easily one of my favorites.

SXC is a free stock photography site where users find images for use in blogs, presentations and more. The images are free to use and, typically, do not require attribution or notice. The standard restrictions pretty much opens up the images for all non-pornographic use that isn’t going to be sold directly or, in the case of photos with people, used to endorse a product.

However, if you surf the site long enough, you’ll eventually find copyright notices like the one below. Where the user has selected that they want additional restrictions on the work, including in many cases attribution and to be notified before any public use is made.

While these are perfectly reasonable requests, they are being asked on a site where such requests are seldom made. Furthermore, given the location of the terms below the image, most users likely miss the special restrictions altogether and use the image in violation of the license.

With so much deliberate infringement taking place on the Web, there is nothing gained by setting oneself up to be infringed like this. After all, the first step to protecting your work is sensible copyright licensing and part of that is making sure that your terms are clear and easily understood.

Doing otherwise not only invites those who intentionally infringe, but also those who simply make a simple mistake and that only creates headaches for everyone.

The Problem with Special Licensing

The problem with the cases like the ones on SXC is that they are exceptions to the rule. If one goes to SXC, they generally expect free stock photos and don’t even look for additional licensing information. After all, the standard restrictions are called “standard” for a reason.

When one licenses their content under different terms, they are changing the default rules and, if the user doesn’t notice the change or, even worse, know to look for them, they can infringe the copyright without intending to.

As copyright holders, part of our responsibility is to clearly state our licensing terms. Whether they are all rights reserved, Creative Commons or even a public domain dedication, it is important to always be clear about our rules and make sure that our readers/viewers understand them.

Making sure those terms are understood also includes being consistent with them. When people visit a site expecting one set of rules but get another, it often creates a problem.

Though I am picking on SXC in this article, somewhat unfairly, bloggers and other artists often do something similar on their own sites by either:

  1. Having a different license for some of the content on their site. This can include either having a difference license for a few of your works or licensing a few individual items under a different set of terms.
  2. Changing their license.

These are two very common problems that people who use Creative Commons and similar licenses often face.

The problem is pretty simple. A Creative Commons logo on a site does not always mean all of the content on the site is under that license. It could be just that one article, just the text, just the images or some combination of elements. It all depends on what the blogger has licensed.

It can be very difficult for an average visitor to tell what is licensed under which set of terms and, as copyright holders, that creates a very severe problem for us. We turn from dealing with spammers, plagiarists and intentional infringers to everyday people who simply made a mistake.

How to Avoid Problems

If you’re a publisher on the Web, obviously you want to keep the total amount of unlicensed use to a minimum, especially accidental misuse. With that in mind, here are four tips to ensure you don’t give people the wrong impression.

  1. One Site, One License: Make sure that all of the work on your site is under the same license. If you must have an exception, make it extremely clear and only do so if it is absolutely necessary. In general though, it is best to make sure that your site has one license for everything posted to it. If you want to have some content under a difference license, set up a either an exclusive section or, even better, a different domain.
  2. Be Consistent with the Norms: If you post your works to another site, such as SXC, make sure you license your work in a manner consistent with the norms of said site. Some sites, such as Flickr, have a lot of variance, others, such as SmugMug, focus more on all rights reserved, still others, like SXC, focus more on free use. Understand the community you are posting to and either follow their norms or choose a different site.
  3. Use Clear Licensing Terms: Trying to draft your own copyright notice usually ends in disaster. Use either all rights reserved, a Creative Commons License, a GPL license or another license that was both professionally written and well-understood. CC licenses also have the benefit of being machine-searchable, making them useful for those actively seeking content to use.
  4. Make Licenses Prominent: Finally, whatever terms you chose, place your licenses prominently on your site and in a place where people would expect to find such information. An inclusion in the footer is a must, but another inclusion in the sidebar is also a good idea. Licenses at the end of the text itself or below the image, on the other hand, is easily overlooked.

While there is no sure-fire way to prevent people from making mistakes with your license, especially with the misunderstandings many people have on matters of copyright, taking a few simple steps and thinking about licensing from the user perspective will do a great deal to keep those misunderstandings to a minimum.

Bottom Line

Perhaps it is time to look at licensing from a customer/store model. If a person walks into a store and tries to walk out with the merchandise without paying, there is no question the person is a shoplifter and needs to be treated as such.

However, if a customers routinely try to purchase a product and end up paying too much or too little for it because of confusion surrounding the price, the store has to take at least some of the responsibility.

As content creators, we owe it to our audience to try and be clear about our terms. Though mistakes will always happen, we should do everything we can minimize those cases.

Doing so not only saves us a lot of work on enforcement, but also prevents unneeded conflict and headache on the part of our readers.

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