How to avoid copyright infringement as a freelancer

If you’re self-employed, you probably support the idea that copyrights should be enforced to allow other individuals to be paid fairly for their work. And yet it happens all the time, and not just by big companies stealing intellectual property. So here’s how to avoid copyright infringement as a freelancer.

In many cases it happens by accident, or a lack of understanding about what copyright actually means. If you’re looking for an image or design assets for your self-employed business, it can be easy to search online, find something suitable, and just download it without checking whether you need to licence the right to display it on your business cards, website or social media.

And it can be an expensive error. You may be contacted by the copyright holder individually, or a company acting on their behalf, and faced with a substantial legal bill. Especially if you’ve been using that copyright material for years.

Even if you’re not hit financially for your mistake, you’ll still need to remove the offending material, and replace it. Which can be time consuming, and costly. And as a freelancer or self-employed professional, being known for infringing the copyright can seriously damage your reputation.

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What is Copyright?

Copyright is one of the four areas of intellectual property, and covers the expression of an idea. This means it covers a wide range of material, including writing, music, art and more. And while you might associate it with novels or classic songs, it’s equally applicable to technical reports or instruction manuals. And to fonts or design assets, as much as a famous painting or sculpture.

It’s an automatic right, and does not need any kind of registration. In UK law, copyright protection can last up to 70 years from a specific date, usually either the death of the creator, or first publication. And it’s usually assigned to the person who created the work, unless it’s signed over as part of an employment contract.

As an alternative to selling their copyright ownership, creators can also choose to licence their work for use by others.

What is Public Domain and Creative Commons?

When copyright expires, a work becomes part of the public domain, meaning that intellectual property rights no longer apply. For example, the works of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen or Lewis Carroll.

Some specific works never fully go into the public domain, such as the Authorised King James Version of the bible.

Creative Commons (CC) is a popular method for creators to allow anyone to use their work in a specified way. As a copyright licence, the baseline is that it permits non-commercial use with attribution, and without any modification to the original work. But different CC licences also allow commercial usage, remixes and alterations, or that any derivative work must only be sublicensed under similar conditions.

Many free stock photo sites grant a licence for images to be used under any stated terms, but they cannot simply be resold without significant modification, for example.

In programming and software, there’s the option of licensing your software as ‘open source’ which allows anyone to access and modify it. Different licences have varying terms which might allow or prevent a derivative version of your project becoming closed source, for example.

How do people accidentally commit copyright infringement?

There are certain exceptions to UK copyright laws, including fair dealing for criticism, review and reporting current events, teaching, or parody. But the most common accidental copyright infringement tends to occur when someone uses images, audio, or long excerpts of text without permission.

The most common example is the use of photographs without an appropriate licence. It’s easy to right click and save a photo from most websites, or an image search. And then use it on your own site, or on your social media accounts. And in many cases, this infringes on the rights of the copyright owner, usually the photographer.

Another common pitfall is copyrighted footage or audio used in videos, which is often flagged automatically by sharing sites including Youtube. You may consciously be including a clip of a film for the purposes of a review, or there could be a song playing on a radio in the background of an interview which means it breaches copyright for that recording artist. In some cases, this can be exempt under ‘incidental inclusion’ but the copyright owner could take legal action to prove otherwise.

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How to safeguard yourself against infringing copyright

The most important first step is to be aware of copyright rules regarding the industry and sector you work in. Journalists need to understand what’s permissible when reporting current events or reviewing arts and culture. And video producers should know when they can use clips, or what to look out for in background visuals and audio to avoid any issues.

Never assume that just because it has been published online, that you’re free to use it.

Always check the terms and conditions of any content you wish to use, and the site licensing it. If you’re using Google Image Search, there are options to select Commercial or Creative Commons licences under Tools, but often photos may be listed incorrectly. So always check at the source before downloading anything.

On image sharing and free stock photo sites, check the terms of use, and copyright information for the specific asset. And while many companies now have open press and media libraries, they’re usually only licensed for editorial use. So, while you may be able to write about a new product on a blog, you can’t use that image in an advert for your company, for example.

With text, fair dealing allows you to quote work in a review, if you’re reporting current events, or for non-commercial research. Unfortunately, there’s no straightforward rule on a maximum word count that’s permissible, so it’s really down to whether the use is deemed to be justified or excessive.

For video content, check the agreements for anything that’s integral to your work, and also be aware of any risks that something in the background may not fall under incidental inclusion. For example, if you’re recording a guide to using software or playing a video game, some developers and publishers are happy to offer a licence for those types of content. But you may need to mute the game soundtrack to avoid infringing against the music rights holders, or make sure the radio is turned off if you’re recording an interview with someone.

If you work with subcontractors or employees, make sure they understand the rules regarding copyright material in your industry. Clients can be trickier, as they may ignore you, or assume they know better – in which case, you should keep a record of the conversation and decide your own best course of action.

What to do if you're contacted regarding a copyright infringement

The best options for dealing with a potential copyright infringement will depend on your individual circumstances. While some general tips may help in most cases, there will always be exceptions, and if you have any serious doubts or concerns it’s best to seek specialist legal advice before proceeding.

Many copyright holders may have stumbled across an infringement and contacted you directly. It might be that they simply need suitable attribution added to the work being used, for instance, if you forgot to include it with a Creative Commons licensed image, in which case that can be solved fairly easily.

In all other cases, it’s generally best to remove the offending content as quickly as possible. For example, by taking an article or video offline, until the issue has been resolved. While this doesn’t excuse any previous infringement, it stops any complaint or request for damages growing even larger.

If a copyright holder is asking for payment, then you should assess the validity of their claim, how valuable the work is to you, and what amount is being requested. Always be polite and respectful in your communication and try to work out a solution which is amicable for both parties.

It’s become increasingly common for third party agencies to offer automated copyright checks, and then demand money on behalf of the rights holders. Unfortunately, this means you’ll receive a potentially intimidating legal demand, and there have been various reports of correctly-licensed or used images being flagged up by these systems.

If you really want to safeguard yourself, then having a record of where images, etc were sourced can be useful to demonstrate they were downloaded correctly. But this won’t be the case for most freelancers, so one useful tool for reminding yourself of the original location is Google Reverse Image Search. Click on the camera icon to upload a copy of the image, and Google will try to show all the places it can be found online.

Again, the best option will depend on your individual situation. If you have proof that the material was provided legally, then responding to the copyright holder or third party company often means they’ll immediately stop chasing you for payment.

But even if you have infringed on copyright by accident, then you can try to negotiate the amount being demanded. If it’s a photo on a blog which earns you pennies each month, you can use this to justify settling for a lower figure than if the material in question was the centre of a big advertising campaign or your business identity.

In all cases, if the copyright infringement progresses to legal action, then a court can award monetary damages, grant an injunction to prevent further infringement, or force the surrender of any goods to the copyright owner. And ultimately it is possible to face up to ten years imprisonment and an unlimited fine, although this would only be likely if the copyright infringement was done deliberately for commercial gain.

Try to keep everything in perspective, and remember that you’re under no obligation to pay the amount suggested by the copyright owner if it’s completely disproportionate.

Where to find help if you're accused of copyright infringement

If you’re subject to a copyright claim then it’s important not to panic. Most issues can be resolved fairly quickly and effectively by working with the rights holder to reach a mutually-acceptable solution, whether that’s removing an image, adding attribution, or making a reasonable payment to licence it.

IPSE Membership includes legal helplines which can advise you on the best course of action. Other organisations which offer general advice include the Citizens Advice Bureau.

The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is responsible for copyright in the UK, and offers plenty of useful information, along with a mediation service to help resolve issues without the need to go to court.
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All information posted is merely for educational and informational purposes. It is not intended as a substitute for professional advice. Should you decide to act upon any information on this website, you do so at your own risk.

While the information on this website has been verified to the best of our abilities, we cannot guarantee that there are no mistakes or errors.




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