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Stay On Top of Copyright Law for Your Online Community

Written by Molly Talbert | on March 21, 2016 at 9:00 AM

Stay on top of copyright law for your online community

Copyright laws can be confusing, mostly because the internet often feels like the wild west -- very few people actually have a clear picture of what’s legal and what’s not, so they tend to make up their own rules. To complicate things even more, many people do illegal things -- like use a photo they don’t own -- without even realizing the potential consequences.

As scary or overwhelming as copyright laws can be, they help you protect your community’s content. You don’t want someone else to steal and repurpose it! Rather than only seeing copyright laws as confusing and stressful, know they do have a valuable place.

That being said, they can work against you if you’re unaware. So you need to brush up on some basic rules and be clear on how they work. Community Manager Patrick O’Keefe recently had copyright expert, Jonathan Bailey, on his podcast, Community Signal.

Here’s a quick recap on the advice they had (which pertains to their thoughts on American copyright laws -- laws differ internationally, so make sure to double-check your country’s copyright laws):

1. Typically, the poster owns the content that they posted, no matter what.

Sometimes communities put a clause in their terms of service, claiming ownership over that content. But those terms usually aren’t successful in court, so don’t count on them if you do have it.

Jonathan also pointed out another factor to consider -- community member trust. Often, community members feel betrayed when they learn about those clauses, especially if they see you using their material without consent. Even if you do find a foolproof legal way to uphold your terms of service, it can leave a bad taste with members and hurt their trust in you.

2. Just because you can't republish a community member's content doesn't mean they can't republish it somewhere else.

Remember? The poster owns the content they posted. Communities often have non-exclusive licenses, which means members are free to republish their content wherever they want.

3. You need to know about The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

This law was enacted by President Bill Clinton in 1998, and basically saves you and your community in case a member commits a copyright infringement, accidentally or on purpose. According to Jonathan and Patrick, in order to benefit from this law, there are three things your community needs to comply with

  1. First, you need to designate an Online Service Provider. Basically, this means you need one person who hosts content provided by a third party -- they’re your members. The Online Service Provider can be the community manager, and their job is to deal with any copyright infringements. They need to be listed on your site as well as registered on the US Copyright website.
  2. Second, you need to show you quickly remove content that infringes. Most people take down infringing content within 48-72 hours of being alerted.
  3. Third, you need to have a policy for terminating repeat offenders. Many organizations, including YouTube and Flickr, have a three-strikes-you’re-out policy.

Steps to Keep Infringements to a Minimum

Now that you’re all caught up on the basics, here are a few steps you can take to make sure your community remains issue-free:

1. You (the community manager) shouldn't infringe.

First, members tend to follow your lead, so if you make a mistake or infringement, they’ll see and think it’s permissible to follow suit -- they’ll probably just assume what you did is legal. Plus, repercussions can be particularly harsh if the Online Service Provider is the one infringing.

2. Regularly be on the lookout for infringements.

Does it look like a member took that photo themselves or copied and pasted from somewhere else? Or did the normally quiet member just post paragraphs that look like an article from somewhere else? Checking is usually easy -- copy and paste a few lines into Google and see what comes up. Cool tip -- you can search an image by dragging it into the Google Image search bar.

3. Add policies in your community guidelines to educate members.

Most mistakes will be just that -- honest mistakes. Create a style guide that explains proper attribution -- you can’t copy and paste a news article even if you cite it (maybe paraphrase and link to the article instead). Here’s a handy infographic to help you understand copyright with images, which can be a little more nuanced. Make it clear they can’t simply use any image they find on Google.

4. As you manage and prompt discussion, don't encourage infringements.

(i.e. encourage people to share copyrighted material, such as music, images or files) There is a gray area when it comes to sharing links to pirated material, like sharing a YouTube link to an illegal movie. It’s hard to know exactly if your community could get in trouble, or if only YouTube would deal with it. Either way, Jonathan and Patrick advise avoiding those types of links.

5. Don't be scared to take action when you see an infringement.

Taking down illegal content and notifying the poster is just part of the job -- and hopefully it won’t happen too often. Rather than being curt and straightforward, assume good intent and take each incident as another lesson to educate your members.

Knowledge is Power

The more you know about copyright laws, the better you’ll be able to protect your community and members. The tricky part: copyright is different than trademark. When a person creates content, it’s automatically copyrighted, unlike trademarks or patents, which go through a process. But preventing copyright infringements is pretty easy -- you just need to spruce up on the rules, educate your members and keep your eyes peeled.

Don’t forget to check out other great episodes on Community Signal! One of our favorites is “You Don’t Just Go Global.”

Disclaimer: The above information isn’t legal advice. Consult a lawyer specializing in copyright law for legal advice.


Topics: Online Community Management, Online Community

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