(Don’t) Copy That

I recently stole a circular saw. Right out of the back of a ute. It was just lying there, in public view, and I thought, “I’ll have that”.

The carpenter who owned the circular saw was quite indignant when I rang him that night and told him I had stolen his circular saw. Called me all sorts of names that I won’t repeat here. I told him I’d give him back his circular saw when he removed the pages from his website that he had copied, word-for-word, from one of our client’s websites.

More names. He didn’t see the similarity. I tried to explain that I make money from the words I write, that it’s part of my income. Copying those words and republishing them is an act of theft, pure and simple. He can pay me to write new words, better words, words just for him!

More names. I asked him, quite honestly and openly, would he steal, say, a song of Dave Faulkner’s from a download site and deny Dave Faulkner the royalties — the income — that rightly belongs to Dave Faulkner.

He said, “Sure, why not.”. I sent the saw to Dave Faulkner.

Why is it okay to steal stuff just because it’s on the internet?

We’ve had a few interesting chats with clients and would-be clients about plagiarism and copyright over the past few months: some for all the right reasons (“How do I protect my intellectual property?”), and some for the wrong reasons (“Can’t you just grab the image from www.letsripitoff.com?”).

We’ve been on the wrong side of plagiarism (someone else has claimed our work as theirs), had clients who have had their work copied, know writers who have had entire books re-jacketed and re-published on Amazon as someone else’s book!

So our position is clear: plagiarism is wrong. It’s always wrong. No two ways about it, no matter if “it’s just a little bit”.

At its most fundamental level, plagiarism is stealing. It denies the original creator or author of their right to ownership and potentially denies them of their right to income. The author or creator has worked hard to provide that content, and they deserve to get paid for it and to be recognised for it. Simple. Same as any other job, really.

It seems, though, that the nature and scale of the internet has encouraged a huge misconception that, if it’s on the Web, it’s up for grabs. That’s simply not true. Here, then, are some common arguments we hear when asked to “just use the photo from the www.letsripitoff.com website” or “just copy the text from www.ourcompetitor.com website”, and why we refuse to do it.

But it’s not copyrighted

How so? Copyright law is extremely complex and, sorry for the reality check, chances are you don’t know its ins and outs.

Yes, copyright protection has a limited lifespan, but chances are we’re not talking about stealing from Charles Dickens here.

Copyright law, at its most basic, says that content creators have the right over how their content is used. This includes where it is displayed, in what context, who is given credit for it, and the right to receive any income from that content.

And we’re not just talking artists, writers and composers here. Everyone has a right to copyright protection, be it a blog, a note in your handbag, a snapshot, a design for a widget: the law states that a person has automatic copyright in any works they create, as soon as it is fixed in a medium. Save a document to your hard drive: it’s copyrighted. Take a picture with your phone: it’s copyrighted.

There was no © symbol

No specific symbol or notification is required on the author’s or creator’s part for their work to be copyrighted. It is automatic. As soon as a given work is saved in a medium (on paper, in a computer, on a phone etc) it is copyrighted. Unless the creator specifically and publicly, and typically in writing, waives their right to copyright, then they own the copyright.

The responsibility for attribution of ownership (whether any given content is copyrighted or not) is not up to the author to specifically claim: it is assumed. If you’re thinking of copying content of some sort, the responsibility is yours to ensure that the given content is copyright-free — not the other way around.

But the image was on FlickR, Instagram, Pictomatic

Just because someone publishes a work on a sharing network doesn’t mean he or she has waived their copyright. A public space does not equate to public ownership; public domain does not mean public use. In fact, publishing something in a public space such as the internet may comprise the creator’s first step to claiming copyright, not waiving it.

But it’s “Fair use”

Even judges and lawyers argue over what constitutes “fair use” in copyright cases. But mostly it can be defined as a limited or acceptable portion of a given work for the purposes or critique, education, or satire. If you’re not reviewing, teaching or parodying, chances are you’re well wide of “fair use”.

And I’ve credited the original in a footnote

Okay, now we’re getting technical. Crediting the original author in a review, critique or educational context (see “Fair use” above) may be okay, depending on the length of the citation versus the length of the original and the context it is re-published in.

But what it really comes down to is, do you have permission to reuse or republish that content. If you don’t have specific permission from the creator, then you are infringing their copyright.

But I won’t get caught

Well, good luck to you if you’re willing to bet your professional standing and potentially a good deal of money on it. But be warned that large companies routinely (and by that I mean daily) have spiders crawling the web in search of duplicated or re-used content. They paid for it, they own it, they want to protect it. Kinda like paying for and owning, say, a circular saw.

There are many new tools, too, that make this largely automated process available to small business and individuals as well. In other words, the chances of your not getting caught are increasingly slim.

Don’t underestimate, too, the conscience of the world at large. There are countless examples of authors, artists and creators being made aware of plagiarism of their work by friends, fans, or members of the public, totally out of the blue.

I’ll take the risk

Okay, think about this: a photographer by the name of Andrew Leonard uses a scanning electron microscope to photograph things on an unimaginably small scale, such as fungal spores, bacteria, and viruses.

Needless to say he was pretty pissed when be found a medical supplies and services company using his photographs without permission or notice.

He successfully sued of $1.6 million in damages, and in the future this could potentially be much, much more, depending on the outcome of his case for statutory damages.

Do you really want to run that risk?

And anyway, it makes you a schmuck

Think about it: how would you feel if someone stole your work and thus a piece of your income? Not happy, right? So why is it alright to steal content or images from the web.

Fact is, it doesn’t make it alright.

And, for that reason, we at saso.creative won’t be party to the copying of content without specific permission from the copyright holder. If you supply us content, our assumption is that you have created that content yourself, or you have obtained the relevant permissions to republish that content in the given context.

Please don’t ask us to “just copy that image from …” or “just grab the article from …” — without specific permission, we just won’t do it.

In brief

  • Let's not pussyfoot around the issue: copying stuff — text, images, videos — from the internet and re-presenting it as your own work is theft. And mighty dodgy.

  • Work doesn't have to bear the © symbol to be protected by copyright: unless otherwise explicitly stated, copyright is assumed.

  • Content on a social networking or sharing site is not public property. It is still protected by copyright of the original content creator.

You don’t have to steal to get yourself some quality content

I didn’t really steal a circular saw from the back of a ute. What would I do with a circular saw? I can barely work my electric toothbrush. But the point remains: stealing stuff, whatever the stuff is, is stealing. Makes no difference if it’s in public view, if it’s on the internet, if it’s a tangible good such as a saw or an intangible one like words and images.

Two of the most frequent excuses for the copying of content is one, that there’s no time for original content, and two, that it’s too expensive.

Not true. Give us a call or drop us a line: we’ll set you straight. If you need content — original, custom content, copyright-free content, content you own, get in touch.

I did send a circular saw to Dave Faulkner, though, just to muck with his head.

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