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Copyright & License Types

Finding stock photos and existing images is often quicker, cheaper and more practical than producing your own, Whether free or not, these resources normally come with a license to ensure fair use. For professionals, understanding the limitations of a license is critical; with this knowledge, you’d be surprised by what’s available. Understanding copyright and licenses allows us to do what we do best: be creative.

When we create something — let’s say a photograph — we own the copyright, which is our exclusive right as the author to own that work. We control who else can use our work and in what manner. For example, I could allow someone to print my photograph or adapt it in a piece of art. Rather than establishing verbal agreements, I can distribute my work with a license that sets the guidelines for use. The things that are copyrighted are sometimes referred to as “intellectual property.”

Licenses are granted by an authority to allow a usage; in my case, the use and distribution of resources by the copyright owner (i.e. me). I may decide to offer my photograph for free or charge a price; either way, I can include a license to limit usage, and I maintain the copyright. Just because someone pays money doesn’t mean they have full control or rights to what they’re buying. Licenses can dictate the number or uses, the bounds of use and even the length of time until the license expires.

Moreover, under “work for hire,” the employer holds the copyright, not the author or creative; in many cases, this is a company (such as a creative agency) or its client (by contractual agreement). In such cases, the creator retains “moral rights” to their work, including the right of attribution. This is partly why published articles refer to the author, although moral rights can include anonymity.

What Is “Fair Use”

“Fair use” is an exception to the exclusive rights held by the copyright owner. It exists in some countries such as the US and UK. Under it, in certain cases, using work without permission is possible. If someone’s usage is defined as fair use, then they don’t need to obtain a license. Essentially, using copyrighted material is a legal right. Examples of fair use might include:

  • Educational purposes, such as teaching and student research;
  • Making commentary and criticism as part of a news report or published article.

There’s a misconception that noncommercial or nonprofit use is always acceptable. It isn’t. Fair use is a legal term and is judged case by case. Always research thoroughly if you think your use of copyrighted material is legal.

What Is “Public Domain”?

Work that falls in the “public domain” basically has no copyright owner. You can use, modify and redistribute it to your heart’s content. An author can forfeit their copyright and, thus, put their work in the public domain (although it’s not quite that easy, as we’ll see later). Copyright ownership expires after the author’s death (generally 50 to 70 years after death in most countries).

Legal Jurisdiction:

Every country has its own interpretation of copyright law, but there are many agreements between nations. Licenses are enforced under copyright law, which is different than contract law. The distinction here is questionable within certain jurisdictions, each of which applies the law differently.

The Berne Convention (for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works) was established in 1886 and is an international agreement that governs copyright. It states that each member state must recognize the copyright of work from other countries, and it must extend the same rights to foreign work that it gives to those of its own citizens. It also makes clear a minimum standard of protection for copyright owners. To date, 164 countries have signed this agreement.

Licenses can be limited to certain jurisdictions. So, while something may be free in one country, the copyright owner could reserve all rights in other countries.

If you’re reading this, I can guess pretty confidently that you work on the Web and that you are, or will be, purchasing licenses from copyright owners in different countries. These licenses are bound by the laws of those countries, and you must respect them.

We’re getting into political and legal territory here. Remember: if in doubt, get legal advice.

License Terminology

A license can be written from scratch, but most people choose a well-known one. We’ll cover the common licenses that relate to our industry of website design and development, specifically those that allow for free usage — “free,” meaning that no money is required. Generally, licenses that govern paid resources are written individually, but all licenses have commonalities.

There is obviously a fundamental difference between, say, development code and stock photography. So, it should come as no surprise that a range of licenses exist. Each is tailored to the usage. Before we dive into them, let’s go over some common terminology:

  • “Copy” A simple copy of the original work.
  • “Modify” To alter copyrighted work in some way before using it.
  • “Derivative work” The result of modifying copyrighted work to produce new work.
  • “Distribute” The act of giving someone your work under a license.
  • “Redistribute” The act of distributing work and its license after obtaining it under license from the original copyright owner.
  • “Share alike” Permission to distribute derivative work under the same or a similar license.
  • “Credit” or “attribution” The act of identifying the original copyright owner.
  • “Copyright notice” A written phrase or symbol (©) informing of copyright ownership (not necessarily required by law).
  • “All rights reserved” A common copyright notice declaring that no usage rights exist (again, not necessarily required).
  • “Warranty” A written guarantee included with the license (or, usually, not).

Creative Commons
Lawrence Lessig founded Creative Commons (CC) in 2001 to create a series of easy-to-understand copyright licenses for online creative work. These licenses established the notion of “some rights reserved.”

The Creative Commons license has six variations. It’s really a collection of licenses that cover particular uses. These include whether the licensed work can be used commercially, whether it can be modified, and whether derivative work can be redistributed under the same (or a compatible) license. A Creative Commons license can be restricted to certain jurisdictions or apply internationally.

~ by David Bushell.