Something we often get asked when talking about sharing online content is “what about copyright?”.

It’s a good question. And (disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer) my answer comes down to the idea of intent. What is your intent on using the image? Is it for directly commercial purposes? Are you suggesting that it is your own content, or providing a link to the source?

The internet, particularly social media, is built for sharing. Sharing content is the social basis for sites like Digg, Pinterest, Reddit and more. Users like to see content that isn’t just your own stock images, but also things that are interesting, funny, engaging, depressing or otherwise emotive.

So we generally advise organisations to provide a source where possible. I strongly believe that from the view of a user, the assumption is that the content you’re sharing (e.g. a funny meme) isn’t under the premise that you own the copyright: it’s just for the sake of sharing something funny/sad/…

But this isn’t always the case. Have a look at the ad that I saw on my Facebook page recently:

Now that is an ad. No two ways about it, it’s on the advertising platform of Facebook. And in traditional (e.g. billboard) advertising, you need to licence the content before using it. After all, you’re using someone else’s intellectual property to promote your own business. The intent isn’t sharing something funny or amusing, it’s to encourage someone to click and buy/signup/take an action.

So I question whether the organisation running this ad has intellectual property rights for the above image of Olympian Matthew Mitcham – or whether Mitcham would be happy to be associated with the brand (in all likelihood he has his own sponsorship contracts that would forbid it).

There are exceptions to copyright law, known as “fair dealing” (here’s a quote from this great fact sheet)

There is no general exception for using copyright material simply because you think it is fair or
because you are not making a profit. The Copyright Act allows you to use copyright material
without permission if your use is a “fair dealing” for one of the following purposes:
• research or study;
• criticism or review;
• parody or satire;
• reporting news; or
• professional advice by a lawyer, patent attorney or trade marks attorney.

But in the same way, we can’t become a nanny state. I had a fascinating discussion with a group of artists recently about whether they were happy for their work to be shared without attribution. Is the intent of a piece of art to convey a message, or is it a tool to promote the artist? Views were varied and there wasn’t a group consensus.

I think that (in copyright like many other areas) the law isn’t up-to-date with ‘web2.0’. The comic above serves to remind us that at the same time, trying to bootstrap old laws onto new technology can easily backfire. So our advice is simple when you’re sharing someone else’s content:

  • Don’t suggest that it’s your own content…there’s nothing wrong with sharing. After all, sharing is caring.
  • Ask the owner (if possible/feasible)
  • Don’t use non-licensed content for core promotional material (e.g. advertising anywhere, Cover Photos etc)
  • Provide a link where you found it (link love gives you good karma anyway), and/or reference the Page/Twitter account that you found it originally

Sometimes it can be mighty difficult to find out the source of an image that has been ‘doing the rounds’ on the internet, and kindly Google has now provided us with a way to search for places that contain an image using the image itself. You just click on the little ‘camera’ icon in the search box on and upload it:

Google Image Search

And you can (generally) find the source. Might take a bit of searching though, but it works well.

What have your experiences been? Have you been caught out by a copyright disaster?

(XKCD comic link)