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As A Blogger, When Can You Use Someone Else’s Content?

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February 14, 2012

Most bloggers know that their hobby or profession is a community, of sorts. As with any community, its members often collaborate with one another to help each other out, by sharing tricks of the trade, and the like. But, again, as in any community, there are plenty of potential points of conflict. One of the most common bones of contention that can arise between bloggers is the use by a blogger of content that they did not create. Now, it’s fairly common for bloggers to use stock images to add some visual context to their posts, and, typically, the owners of these images have no problem with it. Likewise, most bloggers are usually OK with another blogger using a snippet of text that they wrote, whether it’s to express agreement with a point of view expressed, or to provide a counter-argument to it.

However, there are plenty of bloggers who break these unwritten laws of the blogosphere. When that happens, they stand a good chance of also running against the written laws…of the United States.

This article will cover some of the legal issues that can come up when bloggers use content that was created by someone else, without the permission of the person who created it. It will cover issues of copyright infringement and fair use, and provide some practical advice on the legal and ethical ways in which you can use content that you did not create.

As a blogger, it’s important to have a basic working knowledge of copyright law. A “copyright,” as the name implies, is a right to copy a work. Specifically, it’s the exclusive right held by the content creator (or someone to whom they have licensed that right) to reproduce their work, create derivative works (translations, adaptations into other media, etc.) based on it, and to display it publicly.

If anyone who is not the copyright owner reproduces a copyrighted work, they have committed copyright infringement. Copyright infringement gives the victim (the copyright owner) the right to sue the infringer, and the law often entitles successful plaintiffs in copyright cases to hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, even if they do not suffer significant financial harm as a result of the infringement.

So, it’s pretty important to make sure that you aren’t violating any copyright laws if you decide to post material that you didn’t create onto your own blog.

The best way to avoid a copyright issue is, of course, to create all of your own content. Of course, this isn’t always possible, given the fact that there’s a limited amount of time in each day. After all, if you were to create a new image from scratch for every blog post you write, you’d spend all your time doing it, and have little time left over to write or market your blog.

The next best way to ensure that your use of copyrighted material is legal, and will not expose you to any liability, is to obtain written permission from the copyright owner to use it. Because the content is the property of the copyright holder, the decision on whether to let you use their content, and under what terms, is completely up to them.

However, you’ll probably find that most copyright owners won’t have a problem with you using their content for non-commercial purposes, as long as you attribute it to them, and maybe provide a link back to their website.

But, what about situations where you have found a piece of content that you want to use, but can’t locate the copyright owner to obtain permission to use it?

In this case, you may still be able to legally use the content, by relying on the doctrine of “fair use.” Fair use is a doctrine that allows people to engage in conduct that technically constitutes copyright infringement (reproduction of a copyrighted work without the owner’s permission) without incurring any legal liability. It only applies in very limited circumstances, however. Fair use typically applies in situations where the content is used for purposes of education or criticism, only a small portion of a copyrighted work is used, and it is used in a way that is very unlikely to interfere with the market value of the copyrighted work.

For example, reproducing a short excerpt from a book that is to be included in a book review constitutes fair use. However, reproducing whole chapters of the book, and then writing a few comments on it, probably wouldn’t. There is no clear, bright line between what constitutes fair use and what doesn’t, so it’s rarely a good idea to rely solely on fair use to avoid copyright liability.

As you can see, bloggers can face a wide variety of legal issues. This article is hardly a comprehensive guide to those issues, but it should serve as a good starting point when you are analyzing the possible legal consequences of your business decisions.

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