What Businesses Need to Know About Copyright and Their Sites

Wix LogoIt’s common wisdom that, if you have a small business, you need a website. Websites are cheap, easy to set up, are available 24 hours a day and, when combined with search engines and social networking, can help you reach new customers or maintain contact with existing ones.

In short, sites are powerful tools that can help almost any business.

But websites aren’t the focus of a lot of businesses. Many consider it a necessity or a nice-to-have, but one that isn’t particularly core to the business or their marketing.

This results in a lot of businesses setting up sloppy sites as an afterthought, rushing to finish the project with as little expense and time spent as possible. This also leads to sites being abandoned and forgotten, left to become out of date in just weeks or months.

But even businesses that do take their sites seriously forget that it’s not just a sales tool, it’s also a responsibility. Your site, much like every advertisement you publish, is not just a representation of your business, but a potential minefield of legal problems. This includes everything from false advertising, trademark infringement and, yes, copyright.

However, the issue for small businesses goes even deeper than that. After all, the same as you can infringe others, others can infringe you. As such, when setting up a site, it’s important for businesses to weigh not just the trouble they could get in, but the trouble that could find them.

The Risk of Infringement

getty-images-logoWhen you create your website, you have to fill its pages with something. Even a basic website with only the most essential information requires code, text, images, logos and possibly video.

In short, even a relatively simple website can infringe copyright a slew of different ways and many small businesses, when rushing to set up their site, simply pull content they find in Google or elsewhere and try to get their site functioning.

As a result of that, many businesses have their sites shut down, usually due to copyright complaints from those they’ve infringed. Hosts, upon receipt of such complaints, will often either order the business to remove the infringing material hastily or, in some cases, shut the site completely pending further action.

But even that is fairly minor to the actions other copyright holders take. For example, the stock photo community has been very active in sending threatening letters to businesses. Those letters demand settlements in the hundreds or thousands of dollars to avoid a full-fledged lawsuit, complete with high legal bills and likely higher damages.

While this kind of enforcement is still very controversial, businesses are the primary target for it not only because they are seen as more lucrative targets, but because their use is inherently commercial. Where you might be able to get away with having infringing photos on your personal Facebook or your Pinterest, posting it on your business site raises the risks significantly.

For both your site and your business, it’s crucial that you ensure everything you post to your Web presence is legally allowed.

The Risk of Being Infringed

Of course, if you do take the time to craft the perfect website, create all-new content that represents you and your company in the best light, you may likely find yourself at the other end of the problem: Being the victim of infringement.

Competitors and others businesses simply in the field will often take content from their more successful counterparts when putting a site online. This can include code, text, images and anything else that you create for the purpose of your site.

The problem with this is three fold. First, it’s a form of unfair competition. By using your content and your work to build their site, they’re avoiding the time, expense and effort that goes into creating a page. That’s resources they can put elsewhere in their business.

Second, it creates confusion. If a potential customer sees the same content on multiple sites, they are likely to become confused as to who is original and if there is a relationship between the companies. This can lead customers to either turn to a competitor, assume that the original site is the plagiarist or simply avoid all of the companies involved completely.

Finally, Google and other search engines like to present a variety of content in their search results. If multiple pages have very similar content, search engines will usually only rank one highly. While most try to give that spot to the original, mistakes are made and original creators can have their search engine ranking suffer because of infringers.

As a result, it’s important to not only be mindful that you don’t infringe when building your site, but to also watch your original work and make sure others aren’t misusing it.

What to Do

All of this begs the question: What is a business to do?

Avoiding copyright trouble on the Internet is difficult and, with a business, the stakes are raised both as a possible infringer and as a possible infringement victim.

Thus, every business, regardless of size, needs to have a strategy for how it’s going to handle copyright online, both in terms of what they put on their site and how others interact with their content.

That strategy should include:

  1. Site Creation: When building your site, make sure to not use any code, images etc. that you don’t have the right to. If you’re unsure, stick to the wide variety of themes available to you and reputable stock photo sites. These days you can do a great deal without ever having to copy code from another site. You can also opt for paid themes or a professionally-designed site for an even more original ad better-assembled look that’s also copyright compliant.
  2. Content Creation/Acquisition: When filling the pages of your site, make sure that all of the content you use is either owned by you or correctly licensed. The easiest way is to create the content yourself. Barring that you, can hire others to do the work, provided you check and make sure it’s original. Remember, whatever is posted to your site, you are ultimately responsible for.
  3. Be Careful About Embedding: While it might be tempting to embed clips from YouTube or audio from SoundCloud, be careful when doing so. Content outside of your direct control can always be taken down, legitimate or not, and infringing content is much more likely to disappear, taking a section of your site with it. Try to only embed content that you control and, in doing so, ensure that you have the license needed to use it.
  4. Watch Competitors Closely: Watch the competitors in your field, especially smaller ones that might be just getting their start. This is not just to see what they are doing and how you can counter them, but also to see if they’re using any of your content. Infringements from your direct competitors are almost always the most dangerous and the ones you should be most quickly aware of.
  5. Check Your Content: At regular intervals search for key sentences from your content in Google to see if appears on other sites. Focus on content that isn’t specific to your business, such as information about the industry, FAQs, and general content that might apply to other companies or even related fields. If you are unsure about how to do this, I have a guide on this site you can follow.
  6. Take Action: Decide how you want to handle infringements that you do find, whether it’s a cease and desist letter, a takedown notice with the host or whatever action you deem appropriate.

Whether you are a company of one or this is a policy you pass along to your employees, it’s important to have these plans in place before something happens. Once you’ve received a notice of infringement, it’s too late to be thinking about how you’re going to avoid trouble, the situation has already reached that point and the push there is more about minimizing the impact.

Likewise, if you try to figure out how you’re going to respond to infringement after you spot your first case, you’re going to spin your wheels for a lengthy period of time before you’re able to respond and you may make crucial mistakes in enforcing your rights that could hurt your case.

In short, the time to be thinking about these issues, ideally, is before you launch your site but, failing that, there is no time like the present.

Bottom Line

For businesses, websites are not just an expression of individuality or a place to have your say on the Internet. They are a vital part of the marketing mix and, if handled poorly, a very serious legal issue.

As such, as a responsible business owner, you have to both think about how to ensure that you don’t land in trouble with your site and how to best protect your efforts. You don’t want your site to be shuttered nor do you want to face a possible copyright infringement. Likewise, you don’t want your competitors to exploit your work to their gain.

So take a moment and think about the role copyright plays in your site. A few moments of thought now can save you days of headache later, not to mention a significant amount of money.

And, if you need help with that planning, I am available to assist through my copyright consulting firm.

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