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The Internet is not a Free Buffet

The internet is not a free buffet despite what many people may want to believe and how they behave online. It is the greatest distribution channel of all-time where you can find literally anything that you may be looking for. The content is there for you to look at enjoy and sometimes use, but there are strings attached. Just because someone uploads content on the internet doesn’t mean that he or she gives up their ownership or control of it.

I find that one of the biggest mistakes that internet users make is simply to grab content for their own use. I see it all the time as even otherwise sophisticated business people grab images they run across and slap them on their blog posts or grab articles to post on their own websites. The fact that it may be easy to grab doesn’t make it permissible to use.

When you or anyone else posts content, be it photos, videos or written posts, online you don’t surrender your ownership and control. It belongs to you and you’re able to establish the terms on which others can use it. You may choose to make it available by Creative Commons or other licensing terms, but that decision belongs to the content creator exclusively.

Users who grab content without first looking may be surprised to find a demand letter for compensation in your inbox. Yes, the use of content owned by someone else subjects you to the terms by which it was distributed, and that may require the payment of a licensing fee. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t realize it. You may be familiar with the cliché that ignorance of the law is not a defense. This cliché may be overused for a reason: it’s true.

In the same way that you wouldn’t (hopefully) copy a passage out of a book or sneak into a movie theater, you can’t just grab content online. That picture may be great, but it’s not yours to use unless you license it.

There are a few safeguards that you should take to make sure that you’re in the clear when using or adapting content online:

  • Find the licensing terms. Just because they’re not there doesn’t mean they don’t exist or that the content is in the public domain. Most things belong to someone else. If you can’t find out who it belongs to, don’t use it.
  • Read the licensing terms carefully. Not all content is licensed in the same way. Even when content is licensed under Creative Commons terms, there may be conditions or limitations. You may have to acknowledge the owner or the content may not be licensed for commercial use.
  • Don’t assume you won’t get caught. Many owners look for the unauthorized use of their content online. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is their content and they may have been burned before. This is especially true in the case of photo archives.
  • Don’t copy articles. You can’t cut and paste content belonging to others, but you can summarize it and post a sentence or two, with proper citation. However, this is skating on thin ice. The best solution is to post a link to the original source of the content.

The realities of copyright may be discouraging to some: “All of this great content, so easily accessible, but I can’t use it.” True, but imagine how you feel about your own content. It does take more work, but you can post your own, original content or find content that you can use, or you can pay for it. The internet is a great tool, but it’s not entirely free.

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