Digital content copyright myths & how they could cost you thousands

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Nine out of 10 business websites don’t own their own digital content copyright. If you’re one of them, social media legal expert Jamie White explains how it could cost thousands of dollars to get it back.

According to Google, 98 per cent of us research online before we buy, which makes not having a website a little like not having a shop front on what the main street used to be. It’s surprising then to know that, according to a Google Australia survey earlier this year, only 52 per cent of SMEs in this country have a website. JamieWhiteLG

That’s good and bad news if you are one of them. Bad: you are missing out on the e-commerce explosion (presumably in favour of bricks and mortar, hopefully smack bang on a main street...). Good: you can learn from the mistakes of others and also be the one in 10 whose lack of understanding around copyright won’t come back to bite them in the future.

Let’s run with the good news. You’ll avoid potential further costs because you will know that even if you have paid through the nose for your flashy new site, the words, the pictures and the logo, you still do not actually own any of those elements unless the original creators have signed over copyright in writing to you. Otherwise they still own the rights and can, to a certain extent, control your use of the content, causing you a headache in replacing it, and possibly more money to keep it – or potentially face legal action.

Even having to prove you have a licence to use the content can be a costly affair unless you have a written contract beforehand, and yet the majority of websites are commissioned, built and filled with content with only verbal agreements in place.

The reason is understandable – very few businesses outside of publishing have needed to understand copyright law. But now every business is a publisher – or will be once that bells ‘n whistle new website is launched – so dispelling some of the myths and misunderstanding around it has to be done.

Myth 1 – “I’ve paid for the content, I own it.”
Most people, and even some I’ve met from publishing, mistakenly believe writing a cheque for content equals ownership. This may be true if the content has been created by an employee in the course of his or her employment, but if it is a freelancer or contractor, the original work belongs to them unless they have assigned it to you in writing.

Myth 2 – “But it was my idea, I own it.”
You may have had the ideas for what kind of content you wanted to be created, but copyright protects the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. Whoever sat down and created the content will be the first owner of copyright.

Myth 3 – “We’ll just change things around a little, no-one will notice.”
This is dangerous ground. You would have to change the work substantially and, if taken to court, prove that it was not a substantial reproduction of the original.

Prevention is the best cure in medicine, and the same goes for the law. Many copyright disputes could be easily avoided if businesses took some advice before they went ahead and started creating content.

Content will become more important in a world where mobile technology means we can engage with it everywhere and Google fine tunes its search algorithm to surface quality content over bad. The savvy businesses that put copyright agreements in place will be able to concentrate on the possibilities, not the pitfalls.

Jamie White is Solicitor Director and owner of Pod Legal and practices exclusively in the areas of Intellectual Property, Technology and Social Media Law. He is a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Queensland and the High Court of Australia, a Registered Trade Marks Attorney, and an Adjunct Teaching Fellow at Bond University.

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