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Business Bloggers and Copyright

96814923 Bloggers are pretty much awesome. Clearly, I’m objective about that.

What I mean: whether blogging or otherwise engaged online, most savvy users of interactive technology for business understand the importance of using online tools responsibly and want to ensure online initiatives comply with federal copyright law.

I can’t cover every potential land mine, but this post will be the first in a series addressing a few copyright issues business owners, corporate communicators, marketing professionals, and others often encounter online. I also hope to debunk some prevailing misunderstandings.

How many parts to this series, you ask?  I cannot stifle my free spirit by limiting myself to something as restrictive as a precise number. That, and I’m not sure yet. Generally, federal copyright law gives the copyright owner a number of exclusive rights (i.e. to copy, adapt, publicly distribute, publicly perform and publicly display).

Though exclusive, they are not absolute.  Among the limitations on these rights, “fair use” stands as one of the most important.

Although the fair use doctrine is flexible, it’s much narrower than many assume. The federal copyright act doesn’t define fair use, but it does set forth considerations for courts to weigh in deciding whether a particular use may be considered fair. No single factor is determinative.

  • The statute first suggests a handful of presumably favored uses, including criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research.
  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or for nonprofit educational purposes. This may be tricky in the context of blogging: information may be free and educational, but the author may clearly be blogging for marketing benefits. Would this affect a court’s view of the commercial versus educational nature of the use?
  • The nature of the copyrighted work.  For example, are you repeating a fact or are you repeating someone else’s unique turn-of-phrase used to convey that fact?  Bloggers may repeat facts or ideas contained in someone else’s online content, but may not copy the particular way in which the original author expressed that information.
  • The amount and substantiality of the use in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole. Contrary to popular misconception, fair use can’t be boiled down to a particular word count or percentage-of-original. (i.e., “I only used ten words from the 500-word article,” “I only copied one paragraph out of seven” or “I only quoted ten percent of the original piece”). According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “short quotations will usually be fair use, not copyright infringement.” Again, though, there are no clear-cut rules.
  • The effect of the use upon value/potential market of the copyrighted work. Linking to the original, for example, may help minimize this risk.

When in doubt, get permission in writing or consult an attorney.

Stay tuned for my next post, which will explore further copyright issues that frequently pop up for bloggers and other online business communicators. If you’d like more information in the meantime, the United States Copyright Office offers some great resources, including its Copyright Basics circular.

- Megan Erickson

Megan blogs for IowaBiz for educational and informational purposes only, and nothing in her blog posts should be considered, construed, or relied upon as legal advice or as establishing an attorney-client relationship between you and Megan, you and Megan’s firm, or you and anyone else. Additionally, Megan will try to incorporate into her writing enough clever wit to offset the boring nature of this disclaimer she made us include.


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