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Digital Content is Everywhere - Do You Know Who Owns the Copyright?

Actor and music lover Bruce Willis recently caused a media furore when it was thought he intended to take on Apple to win the right to leave his iTunes library in his will.

The explosion of digital content has turned "copyright" into a term we all need to understand, and if Bruce is struggling to make sense of it all then he isn’t alone.

Now, more than ever, companies need to know how to protect their own copyright and how to avoid infringing the copyright of others. 

How the Big Players do Digital Rights Management

Many large organizations have already changed their business practices in order to protect their digital assets. Most people are aware that if you download a programme for iPlayer from the BBC it will expire automatically within 30 days, and that if you breach Amazon’s policies for Kindle content then your device may be wiped the next time you connect. Getty Images uses technology to trawl the Internet looking for what it considers to be unlicensed use of its content, which, if found, can initiate a legal-looking demand for payment.

However controversial these policies are (Amazon’s has been called “DRM at its worst”), they do allow companies to protect the assets they own. But what about the rest of us?

Copyright of Digital Assets

We live in a world where almost every individual and company has created digital content, for example photos, videos, comments and articles — on social media sites, blogs and websites. In most cases they will own the copyright to this content.

Wikipedia describes copyright as

a legal concept, enacted by most governments, giving the creator of an original work exclusive rights to it, usually for a limited time. Generally, it is 'the right to copy,' but also gives the copyright holder the right to be credited for the work, to determine who may adapt the work to other forms, who may perform the work and who may financially benefit from it."

In summary, copyright means that if someone creates original work then they own the rights to it, and if anyone wants to use this content they need to have asked permission from the owner first.

User Generated Content and Copyright

Copyright for user-generated content is a complex subject. Although we can all appreciate that if a passage is reproduced word-for-word elsewhere then that infringes the copyright of the author, it becomes a little greyer when the piece becomes collaborative, for example if someone adds a comment or an image to an article online — which is common practice for those participating in user generated content sites.

Even if the copyright has been established and all are in agreement, if the original piece has "gone viral," it can be a job in itself to ensure that those who have infringed this copyright are contacted and penalized or at least made to credit the author.

Options for the Rest of Us

Today companies and individuals are creating and using content constantly, for business and pleasure. So how does a small company, without the resources available to Amazon and Getty, track the use and reuse of digital content and manage who owns the rights for it all?

To get it right you need to understand how to protect your own copyright and how not to violate the copyright of others.

Many people think that if an image is in the public domain, for example if it is shown on a website or in Google Images, then it can be used freely. In fact, most images appearing on websites will be subject to copyright if the owner wants to (and is able to) enforce it.

How many people in your company have downloaded an image from the Internet and included it in a report or even on one of your own websites? There’s a fair chance you don’t know — and they probably didn’t know that they shouldn’t have.

This highlights an interesting point: much copyright violation is inadvertent, i.e. it is committed through ignorance or carelessness.

So education of your employees and website visitors is an important and easy first step. For example, if you don’t want people to copy an image from your website then make it clear that it is subject to copyright. This alone will deter many would-be copyright violators.

The next step is to ensure you have control, and can track, all the digital assets you use in your organization (whether created by you or not) and the rights that apply to each.


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