Copyright Trolls and Infringement: Tips for Tech Transfer Professionals

Lydia Bailey of Online Paralegal Degree Center recently sent me an infographic to share with our blog readers. It was called “What Every Website Owner Should Know about Copyright Trolls.” It was definitely worth sharing, plus it reminded me of something that happened with a client.

Image by Lydia Bailey (used with permission)

Image by Lydia Bailey (used with permission)

The infographic begins with a brief overview of what copyright is and how you can (and can’t) use someone else’s copyrighted works. Then it goes on to explain what copyright trolls do (profit from copyrights they own not through active use or sale of them but through threatening to sue others), how they do it (mass mail threats, file claims, repeat), and how to fight them (as allowed under the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act).

In addition to the valuable information it provides, this infographic also touches on a pet peeve of mine — not so much the trolls, but those who infringe on copyrighted works.

A search of “stealing web designs” gets millions of hits, including such articles as “My Website Design Was Stolen! Now What?” by Cameron Chapman to “How to Stop Yourself from Stealing from Your Design Gurus” by Jamal Jackson. As technology transfer professionals — people entrusted to manage and protect others’ IP — we know that just because it’s easy to reuse someone else’s work, doesn’t mean it’s okay.

And most TTO professionals do follow the rules most of the time. There is, however, the occasional complete disregard of copyright, as illustrated in the image below. The top half is from a site we developed for a Fuentek client; the bottom is what later showed up on another TTO’s site. (And, no, the latter did not ask the former for permission.)

WebsiteComparison

But let’s get back to the less blatant infractions, which can slip by even a seasoned professional. They’re almost inevitable given today’s online technology, especially social media. The tendency to share, retweet, etc., can blur the line between fair use and copyright infringement. So to help everyone stay on the right side of the line, I offer up some simple guidance to avoid crossing it:

Give credit if you’re using it for commentary/criticism, teaching, or journalism (including blogging). If that’s not how you’re using it, ask permission.

When it comes to images, do not assume that the absence of a watermark or copyright notice means it’s fair game to use. For example, when we purchase stock photography for our own site and materials we prepare for clients, we are not always required to indicate ownership. Yet the copyright is still held by the stock photo service (we’re partial to iStock®). You should assume that this is the case for any image you see online, so always ask the site owner if the image is theirs or available via a stock photo service.

When it comes to images and such posted via social media sites — where copyright and license rules get pretty murky and are subject to change at any time — cite and link back to the source of the image if it is in the public domain. If it is a copyrighted image, you must seek permission from the owner first. When in doubt, assume that it is a copyrighted image and seek permission or find a different image.

And if you see a design on another TTO’s website that suits your needs, don’t just lift the code. Contact the office to discuss their willingness to share it with you.

Imitation may be considered a form of flattery, but resist the temptation to perpetrate what is less like flattery and more like stealing.

Updated March 5, 2015

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Posted by Laura Schoppe

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