Using Your Neighbor's Intellectual Property

Recently, a relatively new member of the Ecademy business network posted an article from Scott Allen's About Entrepreneurs site in his blog, without a link and proper attribution. We don't believe that he was trying to claim authorship or doing anything malicious, but he caught some heavy flak about it, from both current and former Ecademists. What he did was wrong, but unfortunately all too common, not because people are willfully stealing intellectual property, but because they don't know any better.

That may seem surprising to those of you who know (or think you know) the proper care and handling of copyrighted material, but in a discussion about the topic on a couple of Ryze networks, we learned that a common sentiment about articles on the Internet was, "Spreading the articles around just helps promote them. Why wouldn't someone want their articles posted in discussion forums and blogs, assuming proper credit is given? It's doing them a service."

That may be, but it is up to the content creator, not the reader, to decide. Maybe I think that sneaking into a movie theater will help the producers because I'll recommend the movie to ten friends, but it's still illegal and immoral to sneak into the movie theater. Blogs posts are copyrighted by default. The No. 1 rule to remember is that, by default, posts to a blog, a Website, a discussion forum, or any similar venue are copyrighted material; the author owns the copyright. Just because it's "public" doesn't mean it's "public domain." That means that it is subject to all the restrictions on copyrighted work, i.e., it can't be freely copied and used even with proper credit without either a) the permission of the author, or b) within the context of "fair use." The owners of the site, e.g., Ecademy, may also have rights to use it as part of the user agreement, but no one else does.

Fair use is a concept that allows limited use of copyrighted material, generally for the purposes of criticism, education, satire, etc. The "education" umbrella does not allow you to use works in their entirety. There are no hard-and-fast guidelines as to where the line is drawn, but using a work in its entirety is never allowed, whether it's a four-line poem or a four-page article. Similarly, using an entire chapter from a book would also be a copyright violation. You can use excerpts, but not "complete" anythings: chapters, articles, posts, poems, etc. You can see a quick summary of "fair use" at the U.S. Government Copyright Office or get more in-depth information at the Stanford Copyright & Fair Use Center. The Electronic Frontier Foundation provides some great legal resources for bloggers, including Bloggers' FAQ - Intellectual Property.

There are exceptions, at the author's discretion. Sometimes, bloggers or article writers make pieces available for use in their entirety. This may be done through an express permission statement in the byline of the article or on the blog site's footer, something to the effect of, "This article may be reproduced in its entirety so long as this resource block is kept intact and included in the article." Many people, including us, now use a Creative Commons license of some type to permit broader use than allowed by copyright, while still maintaining the creator's control.

Don't make assumptions. You can't assume that you know what the allowable use is of a particular post or article. For example, the content Scott Allen posts on Entrepreneurs.About.com may not be reposted without permission. On the other hand, what we post on TheVirtualHandshake.com is under a Creative Commons license and can be freely reposted with proper attribution and a link. The same applies to David Teten's Brain Food blog. Why the difference, you ask? Simple economics. On About.com, the revenue model is advertising-based, and Scott gets paid based on page views. Post the content elsewhere and he doesn't get paid on it, at all. On TheVirtualHandshake.com and Teten.com, our goal is positioning ourselves and promoting the book. Post the content wherever you want -- if it's any good, it eventually drives people back to us for the book, speaking engagements, and so on.

When posting in Rome, post as the Romans do. All countries have some sort of concept of fair use, though some have them spelled out more explicitly than we do here in the U.S. The core concepts are covered by the Berne Convention and are fairly universal. The differences are in some of the nitty-gritty details. Bottom line, the advice to always use an excerpt and a link should be safe anywhere.

Proper respect for intellectual property = professional integrity. Part of being a successful businessperson is understanding others' business models. For those of us who write professionally, our content is our product. Learning about our business means learning how to properly refer people to us, just as you would for a doctor or other service provider. The simplest solution is to always use an excerpt and a link, never content in its entirety. That will pretty much always constitute fair use, and will always be appreciated by the content creator.

This is not the first time this has happened to us, as you might imagine. We always approach these situations politely, not as litigants. "Are you aware that this is copyrighted material and may not be re-posted in its entirety, even with proper attribution? I'd be happy for you to use a short excerpt and a link. Please edit it as soon as possible and inform me when you have made the correction."

Think win-win.

And besides, if anyone were ever stupid enough to persist in violating Scott's copyright, we're sure the attorneys at About.com's new owners would handle it quite effectively. :-)

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