By Laura McLoughlin

Copyright laws are in place to protect the original creative expression of an individual or organization. You do not need to apply for copyright.  As soon as you create something unique, you own the intellectual property for this item. If people wish to reuse this item, they will be expected to ask your permission and hopefully pay for the license to reproduce the work. They may also ask for that extra right to adapt the work and so avoiding claims that the work is derivative and therefore also a breach of copyright law.

Common Copyright Problems

Being a small business can be a constant challenge. You are trying to gain traction and grow, while at the same time avoiding falling foul of compliance and regulation issues.  It is easy to see copyright as a minor concern. You might believe that the internet is such a large place that anyone caught out for copyright infringement is unlucky.  

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing “it doesn’t apply to me.” You might think that such laws are there to protect companies from wholesale copying and redistribution of work.  You might even think that companies like Disney would be unconcerned about the use of material by such a small company in a far-off land. You may have a particular Robin Hood complex and that use of the image, video, music or other material is a redistribution of the shocking wealth held in these mega-companies.  Except Disney has a whole team of people whose role it is to seek out breaches to copyright. Rightly so too, the company invests tens of thousands of pounds in the creative development of items they own. If you choose to use it, you are virtually shoplifting an item from the Disney Store on the High Street.

It is also worth considering other small businesses here. There are those companies, also working hard to establish themselves in a crowded market, who are also impacted by copyright law. These businesses are the creative companies who own the copyright.  Copyright is in place to protect the original expression of these people, whether it is a photographer, videographer, graphic designer, musician or writer. The requirement that people pay for a license to use the material for commercial use is a means of ensuring the earnings of such people.

Potential Consequences of Copyright Infringement

There are legal consequences for those infringing on a copyright.  You may find one day a letter on your door from a legal firm. They will be looking to sue you and seek damages.  If they win, which they probably will if they have established enough of a case to issue the letter, you will also likely be responsible for legal costs. Work that included the item you used will also need to be retracted.  

Although this financial cost is significant, the reputational price is higher.  When you are a small business seeking to establish yourself any damage to the appearance of trustworthiness and reliability will be hugely damaging.  The chance you will need to offer a public retraction of the work is high. The people you hoped to lure to your business with your cheaply produced but highly professional publicity is now privy to your less than honest strategies.  It is not the best look for any business, never mind a company who relies on word of mouth testimonials above all else.

For the small business whose image is used and adapted without permission, there is also a financial cost.  Although the creator may have received a fee for the creation of the product, any use or adaptation by you will impact directly on the reputation of their business. For instance, if you take copy from a newspaper site and you insert a large section of copied text into an article that takes the words out of context, you are damaging that news site and its carefully crafted reputation.  Taking an image and turning it into an offensive meme means the original photographer will be forever linked with this adaptation to the work they do.

As with the small business caught out for infringing copyright, the company which is the victim suffers financially and reputationally. It might be that you are only taking a couple of pounds from the earnings of the business by not buying the license.  However, if you then place the item amongst text, video or other creative products that are not reflective of the business ethos of the creator, then reputational damage is enormous. The permission they offer is not just about paying the bills but also maintaining the values and vision of the business they are creating.

Some Practical Solutions

The most obvious answer is to seek out permission and pay for the license to use the material.  You may not have the money to hire a marketing company to produce your promotional material. However, significant responsibility is taken by this marketer, to creating content that is original to you.  If you cannot afford this professional help, you need to be sure you cover this base yourself by applying for the use of the material.

You may be able to use some materials for free. If you go to creative commons sites, people offer material that can be reproduced even for commercial use. Equally, if you do an advanced search on Google, you can refine your search based on the levels of permission attached.  Be wary though; some material may creep through that you are not allowed to use. You need to apply common sense here: if an image from a top film crops up with permission to reuse for commercial purposes and even allows you to edit it, this is likely a mistake. The rights to that image will be worth a lot of money. They are not going to be giving it away for free.

Finally, you can go to freelancing sites and support another small business.  You could ask the photographer or graphic designer working as a sole trader to produce your material for you.  Then, that material is owned by you and you are protected by the same copyright laws.

Featured photo credit: Depositphotos