Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Copyright Licensing – Why You Should Read the Fine Print!

The world of copyright is full of potential pitfalls for new businesses. While a large, established business may have the resources to generate all of its creative works (photos, advertising copy, manuals, videos, packaging, software, website code, etc.) in-house, most businesses will at some point or another have to use material that has been created by a third party. How can an entrepreneur avoid running afoul of someone else’s rights?

The internet has made creative works more accessible than ever before. We have access to what sometimes seem like infinite resources. However, this accessibility has in some ways made the exercise of identifying what is and isn’t okay to use even more difficult and has popularized some common misconceptions about copyright.

Just like a traditional painting, book, or musical recording, a creative work uploaded to the internet is still subject to copyright protection. Generally speaking, the author of a creative work (or their employer) will own the copyright in that work by default. US law no longer requires that authors label their works with the © symbol, so a work can be protected by copyright without any formal copyright notice. When using any creative work from the internet, just as with traditional media, the safest path is to obtain explicit permission from the copyright owner that covers the intended use.

However, the internet has also popularized a range of licenses that give permission to the general public to use the work, rather than requiring each individual or business to get a separate permission. Creative Commons licenses are perhaps the most well-known licenses in this area, but there are a range of licenses developed by organizations interested in encouraging collaboration and free use of existing works. This phenomenon is particularly common in the software space, where software code is often published as “open source” and/or subject to "copyleft" (a concept which pushes back against the monopoly given by traditional copyright).

A license is a predefined set of terms under which a copyright owner decides which parts of their rights to allow others to use. By default, copyright owners have a set of several exclusive rights as part of their copyright, including the rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, and create derivative works from the copyright-protected work. Each of these rights can be separately licensed or not licensed, with or without conditions (e.g. license fees, attribution requirements, requirements not to alter the work, or prohibitions on use in certain circumstances) imposed by the copyright owner. The many license structures common on the internet pick and choose some or others of these rights to license to the public.

What does this mean for entrepreneurs and small businesses? A “copyright license” can be many things, and it is important to understand the terms of any license before using a work owned by a third party. For example, a photograph made available on a stock photo website may be fine to use on an educational blog post with credit, but not fine to print onto T-shirts and sell if the license prohibits commercial use. A music track downloaded from an online database may be ok to include in a podcast, but only if the author is credited. Software code subject to a copyleft license could be incorporated together with new code into a new software product, but the terms of the copyleft license may require that the entire code base for that software product, including any new additions, be made freely available online under the same terms as the original code. Imagine the surprise of an entrepreneur in learning that their use of open source software means their entire code for the proprietary software they are developing must not be made available freely!

The good news is that many of these licenses are written in plain English and targeted at laypeople. The key is to look for them, and to assess how the license might apply to the specific circumstances at hand, before using a third-party work…And, when in doubt, ask a lawyer to help you out!

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