It’s not just those people working in creative fields who need to know how to tackle copyright infringement as a freelancer. Whatever self-employed sector you’re operating in, understanding how to enforce your rights can help if someone decides to steal your brand, or copies the products and services you offer.
Copyright is a way to ensure you’re paid for the things you’ve created based on your own ideas. So, it applies to text, audio, images, design and more. And it’s automatically assigned to the original creator unless your work falls under a contract which states otherwise.
Every situation is different, and you should get specialist legal advice if you choose to pursue a complicated or lengthy copyright action against someone. And along with the general guidance offered here, IPSE members have access to a free 24-hour legal helpline and discounted support.
But first you need to understand if, and when, your copyright might have been breached. And what your options will be to tackle the issue.
Why is copyright and intellectual property protection important?
If you’re self-employed, there’s a good chance you want to earn a fair income from the results of your work. Copyright and intellectual property (IP) protection stops other individuals or companies from exploiting or infringing on what you’ve created.
Copyright is one area of IP, along with trademarks, patents, and more. It’s assigned automatically and for free when you create an original work and expression of an idea. Examples range from literature, music and artistic work to software, databases, or technical instruction manuals. And it also applies to logos, graphics and other unique assets produced specifically for your business.
Areas where copyright doesn’t apply can generally be summarised as news and facts, although there are some specific exemptions in countries around the world. And it’s also possible for someone to use copyrighted work without permission under ‘fair dealing’ if it’s in a review, for non-commercial research or incidentally included in a video. There’s no strict rule on word counts or other limits for fair dealing, so it really comes down to whether it’s deemed to be justifiable or excessive.
You don’t need to have your work published to receive copyright protection, although you will need to prove your right. This could be done by signing and dating work, which is then held by a solicitor.
The length of copyright protection will depend on the type of work you’ve created, for example 70 years after the death of an author, or from first publication. And if you choose to licence your work, you still retain the copyright.
Written, dramatic, musical and artistic work: 70 years after the author’s death
Sound and music recording: 70 years from when it’s first published
Films: 70 years after the death of the director, screenplay author and composer
Broadcasts: 50 years from when it’s first broadcast
Layout of published editions of written, dramatic or musical works: 25 years from when it’s first published
More guidance and details are available from Gov.uk including unpublished works pre-1989, or the rules for specific types of creator, just as computer-generated art or co-authors.
This is important as you can use it to stop someone simply copying your work, and also receive financial compensation for any damages incurred. Or if someone has gone outside the terms of any licensing agreement you’ve offered.
When a copyright expires, work usually passes into the public domain. This means it can be used freely by anyone, but it’s important to note that some works may be granted a perpetual copyright, or given extensions or special exceptions.
How to discover if someone has infringed your copyright
The world is a big place, and you might never know if someone has copied your work in a printed pamphlet handed out on the other side of the globe. But as so much activity has transferred online, there are ways to check if some of your content has been used without your consent.
Manual options include copying and pasting your text into a search engine, or using reverse image searches to look for photographs being used across the web. And there are a variety of browser extensions and other tools which can make this a little easier. The downside is that it’s time consuming, especially if you have hundreds of articles or images which could potentially be misused.
An alternative is to use an automated service. Usually these either require a paid subscription, or that they chase any breaches on your behalf and keep a percentage of any damages or settlements. Obviously, this makes more sense if you’re a photographer with a large back catalogue of images, for example, as there will be enough examples to make it financially worthwhile. The downsides are the cost, and that a third-party agency funded by licence and damage payments may be more aggressive in targeting violations than you might like.
How can you licence your work?
Unless you have explicitly signed over your copyright as part of a written agreement, you retain that control whether or not you make that work available under a paid or free licence.
If you’re creating a licence agreement, then you can choose the specific terms included in that contract. For example, you may grant permission for work to be used for a set period of years in a specific advertising campaign in exchange for a fee. But other usage wouldn’t be covered by that particular licence, at which point your default copyright would apply.
Or you may want to utilise a licence which allows for free or paid use of your work under specific conditions, without the end user needing to contact you. For example, making your work available through a free stock image site will mean you adopt their licensing terms and conditions, or by adopting a Creative Commons licence. In both cases, your choice of licensing doesn’t remove your original copyright, it simply grants the licensing permissions applied in each case.
Using Creative Commons to freely licence your work
You may decide that you want to allow other people the right to share, use or build upon something you have created, while still holding onto the copyright. In this case, you may want to use a Creative Commons licence, which lets you set conditions under which that’s permissible.
All Creative Commons (CC) licence require attribution to accompany any use of your work. But you can also choose whether you want to allow modifications and remixes, or for it to be utilised for commercial purposes.
Alternatives such as MIT, GNU and others may be more suitable in specific cases, such as licensing software. But importantly, all of these licences, sometimes termed ‘copyleft’ do not negate your original copyright, or mean that you have to give away your work for free. For example, you may choose to license a photo under a non-commercial Creative Commons licence, but assert your copyright and request payment if someone wants to use it for commercial use.
How to tackle copyright infringement as a freelancer
When you find a case of copyright infringement as a freelancer, it’s down to you whether you want to pursue it, and the approach you take. Often this will depend on the scale of the breach, and the individual or organisation behind it.
The first option is to contact the individual or company personally. This is often the best option if you’ve spotted a small blog that has simply forgotten to include the appropriate attribution under a CC licence, for example. But there’s nothing to stop you asking for the content to be removed, or for damages and compensation to be paid, if you prefer.
And the personal approach can still work with large companies and publications. Big websites, and even national newspapers have been known to use images without the correct attribution or licensing, and a polite enquiry can sometimes prompt them to rectify the situation without the further threat of legal action.
In some cases, you may be unable to find contact details for a website owner infringing on your copyright. In which case, it’s worth investigating the hosting provider, as U.S based web hosts are legally obliged to follow a DMCA Takedown Notice, and many others around the world will also follow those practices. All you need to provide is the infringing URL, the source URL, and a Description of Ownership, and you can find more information on the procedure via the DMCA website. This can mean the offending content is removed from the internet, but also means that the publisher receives ‘safe harbour’ from legal action regarding the publication of that material.
When you’re considering asking for a financial amount to settle a copyright claim, you’ll need to calculate a figure for the compensatory damages, which would be what a willing licensee would pay a licensor in a hypothetical equivalent situation. For example, if the alternative would have been a stock image site, or hiring a famous fashion photographer for a magazine cover, then the compensation will be different.
You may also want to ask for additional damages, including economic factors such as lost profits, and for any negative impact to your reputation as the author, known as ‘moral prejudice’.
The larger and more complicated the settlement becomes, the more likely you’ll benefit from getting qualified legal advice and support.
So, the second option is to take on legal help. If you’re an IPSE member, you can benefit from a 24-hour legal helpline and discounted assistance, and the financial benefit could well cover your membership costs for quite a while. But if not, then you’ll need to investigate hiring your own lawyers, ideally with a specialism in copyright and intellectual property.
A third option is to use a third party to check for any copyright infringements and follow them up. Most companies will specialise in policing images, as this is easier for them to automate, and you may need to give up around 45% of any compensation or post-licensing fees. But if you have a large database of photos, then it removes any need for you to be involved in the process, and can generate income you might have otherwise lost.
The fourth and final choice is if you decide to just ignore the copyright infringement. Ultimately, it’s your decision whether pursuing someone is worth the time and effort involved. But it’s worth remembering that not only could it harm your reputation or business in other ways (for example, if it’s associated with fraudulent business practices, or that site ranks higher in search results than your own), but it could harm your legal standing if you decide to pursue someone else for infringing your work in the future.
More copyright resources for freelancers
It’s important to protect your own copyright, but also know how to avoid accidentally infringing on the copyright of others. And for detailed information on intellectual property rights and licensing, the following sites are useful:
Please be aware that while we take every effort to ensure any information which we provide is as accurate and up-to-date as possible, it’s important to get qualified legal advice regarding your specific situation, and we can take no responsibility for any losses resulting from the guides we provide.
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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