Firstly, a disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, I’m definitely not your lawyer, and this does not constitute legal advice. I’ve tried to keep the guidance in this article as general as possible; for further details visit the Intellectual Property Office or consult a qualified legal professional in your jurisdiction.
Everything I mention here is relevant for UK law, but because of an international agreement called the Berne convention means that it’s similar in most countries around the world. To start with, let’s talk about some common myths:
“If there isn’t a copyright notice, it’s not copyrighted.”
Wrong. In the UK and in most other parts of the world, copyright is automatically granted whenever an “original work” is created. This could be a photograph, a blog post, a logo, a YouTube video, or anything that is permanently recorded in some way. The copyright term begins from the moment that the material is permanently recorded – ideas don’t count! The exact term of copyright depends on the nature of the work but for most works it expires seventy years after the creator’s death.
“If it’s on the internet, it’s in the public domain”.
Wrong again! As mentioned above, copyright is automatic and lasts for a really long time, so the only safe assumption to make is that everything you find online is subject to copyright unless you can clearly prove otherwise.
There are, however, lots of resources online with plenty of material which is either out of copyright or where the copyright owner has granted permission for their work to be re-used. Good examples of this include Flickr Commons and Wikimedia Commons, both of which have search options for material where the copyright has expired or it has been released under a Creative Commons licence.
“Registering my copyright is expensive and complicated.”
Actually this one is true. Registering created works with a copyright registry can be expensive and complicated – but it’s also completely unnecessary.
In the UK, because copyright is automatic there is no official copyright register – a number of private companies offer this service but, in my opinion, it’s a bit of a scam. The only benefit they offer is to help prove that you had a copy of the work at a given time in the past, which might be helpful if you need to prove this in order to prevent others mis-using your work. However, this can easily be achieved another way – for example by depositing a copy with a bank or a solicitor, or even just mailing yourself a copy (keep the envelope sealed!).
“If it’s copyrighted, I can’t use it on my blog.”
Well, yes… and no. This one’s a bit complicated. As a general rule, it’s true – the copyright owner retains all rights unless permission has been clearly granted. However, there are some exeptions. The only one which is really relevant to bloggers is related to “criticism, review and reporting current events”. It’s often referred to as “fair dealing“, and the key really is that it has to be fair and appropriate. If in doubt, ask!
Hopefully this has helped to dispel some of the common misunderstandings about copyright law and how it relates to UK bloggers. My biggest piece of advice would just to be reasonable, and ask yourself – “if the roles were reversed, would I be OK with people doing this with something I’ve written”? If not, it’s probably not legal either.