Avoiding copyright infringement as a contractor

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Martin Baxter
21 Jun 2021 @ 02:06 pm

Do you know what your rights and responsibilities are as a contractor creating intellectual property of any sort? They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but if your business is in the creative industry, it could well be your biggest downfall. Here is what you need to know about copyright infringement and how to avoid it. 

What is copyright?  

You may see the little copyright symbol all over the place, but, in actuality, you don’t need to have it or register your work with the copyright office to protect your work. If you’ve created it, it’s yours and it’s automatically protected by copyright law. There is a more formal process for registering your work that will cost you, and it exists for good reason – certainly something to consider if you think it’s likely your work will be copied or stolen. But generally speaking, if you have created something tangible (even if it’s digital) you’re protected. 

Copyright is essentially ownership over something you have created. It gives you control over your work and how it is used and protects you against the use of your work without permission. Copyright protection covers things like written work, music and architectural designs – basically anything in a literary, artistic or musical form. It doesn’t protect ideas, though, just the expression of them. 

What is copyright infringement? 

Copyright infringement is when someone uses, reproduces or distributes a piece of protected work without your permission. If they create something clearly based on your work, then they are also infringing copyright. In some cases, the infringement is fairly obvious to prove, but there are more ambiguous areas such as branding, which is a rising area of contention. One example of this is Louboutin shoes with their famous red soles, protected with a registered trademark.  

In a world where it’s so easy to publish and share your own work, the lines of who owns what is blurring and unfortunately copyright infringement is now a very regular occurrence. 

Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself on the wrong side of copyright law and face an infringement lawsuit. Here are some examples: 

- Using copyrighted images in a client brochure without paying for the rights to use them

- Paying for someone’s artwork/photography for a specific use and then putting it on other merchandise without going back and seeking their permission

- The use of music in a video where you haven’t obtained permission from the artist 

- Sharing downloaded material from non-authorized websites. 

The list goes on. Even if you think you’re not in the wrong, it’s in your best interests as a contractor to know whether the work you’ve produced infringes copyright or not and give proper credit and compensation where it’s due. If you don’t, you could find yourself in hot water facing a costly court case. 

How can I avoid copyright infringement?  

While today it’s pretty easy to reproduce and distribute other people’s original work, don’t be tempted to take any risks. The costs to your business could be huge, not to mention the risk to your reputation as well as the impact on your time, finances and peace of mind if you do end up with someone enforcing their ownership rights against you. Here are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself. 

- Assume copyright always applies. Play it safe and assume that any creation is protected by copyright law. If you can’t find a statement saying the material is free for public use, there is a high chance it isn’t.

- Carefully check terms of use before going ahead and using someone else’s work. Whether you’re paying for the material or whether it’s being offered for free, make sure you fully understand the terms of use. 

- Understand Fair Use policies. There are instances where you can use copyrighted work, as long as what you’re doing falls under the policy of Fair Use. So, if your work is non-profit or non-commercial, that is usually considered to be fair use. The same goes for using something as a factual or scientific reference.

- Don’t fall for free content. If you’re looking to use free content (free stock imagery, for example), make sure you source it from the public domain and that the Creative Commons license applies.

- Be as original as possible. If you’re in doubt about using someone else’s work, don’t use it - create your own original work instead. 

The cost of a copyright claim  

Copyright infringement court battles can be lengthy and costly. Even if you take all the necessary precautions, working as a professional creative in today’s industry can be a risky business, so it’s always best to err on the side of caution.  


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