Copyright 101: Content Marketing Legalities You Need To Know
  by:  |  May 17, 2016

Last updated on September 6th, 2017 at 10:04 pm

So you’ve decided to expand your marketing efforts on the internet. Whether sharing content created by others or generating content of your own, investing time in doing content marketing can greatly boost your online presence and potentially convert readers to consumers.

Before you buy a domain, create a blog, and start sharing content all over social media though, you should first learn the concepts behind intellectual property. Knowing these concepts will not only protect yourself and your company from getting your intellectual property rights infringed upon but also will prevent yourself from committing any infringement yourself.

But first, what is intellectual property?

Intellectual property refers to anything created by the mind, such as inventions, art, design, logos, and literary work, including this very article that you are reading. The aim of protecting intellectual property is to provide an incentive to authors and creators to continue innovating for the benefit of society in exchange for the social value of their creation.

Intellectual Property Law Book

There are different types of intellectual property rights but for the content marketer, copyright is the most relevant.

According to United States Law, a copyright grants a creator of an original work the exclusive right for its use and distribution. Copyright protection extends towards “works of authorship” which include literary work (short stories, poetry, news articles, magazine features, etc) and audiovisual work (images, poster designs, advertisements, etc).

The original author of the work, that’s you, owns the copyright to that work, unless you explicitly assign those rights to a third party. Work is deemed “created” and automatically acquires the protection of the law when it is fixed in a tangible form and can be perceived, reproduced or communicated directly or in the aid of a machine or device.

What are the rights of a copyright owner?

US Copyright Law grants five rights to a copyright owner:

– the right to reproduce the copyrighted work, which is the right to copy, replicate, or transcribe a copy in a fixed form;
– the right to prepare derivative works based upon the work, which is the right to innovate and modify the work, or create a new work based upon this existing work;
– the right to distribute copies of the work to the public, either by sale, rental, lease or lending;
– the right to perform the copyrighted work publicly, which gives the copyright owner control to how the work is performed in public;
– and the right to display the copyrighted work publicly, similar to the previous point.

(sections 107 through 122 of US Copyright Law)

With you being the copyright owner of your content, you can assign each right separately to a third party. Infringement of your copyright will occur when any of these rights are violated by another party without your explicit consent.

Mickey Mouse with copyright symbol

Disney has lobbied to protect their copyrights from entering the public domain.


You should note that the law distinguishes the original idea itself from the expression of that idea. Copyright protection specifically provides for work that is in material, tangible form. For instance, if you had the original idea of creating an article about copyright law for content marketers, but I was the first one to write about that idea, then the article I wrote would be copyrighted, but not the idea itself. You cannot claim copyright infringement, but you are free to create your own article exploring the same topic.

Another consequence of this idea-expression dichotomy is the distinction of expression of the same idea that are substantially similar. If we both created similar content articles with substantially similar “expression” of the idea, then the law may make one of us liable for copyright infringement.


Marvin Gaye with Robin Thicke

Marvin Gaye and Robin Thicke

This concept can be difficult to put into practice in a legal perspective. It can be hard to distinguish the boundary between the “idea” and the “expression”. Most of these cases are prevalent in the literary and music industry. In a recent case, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, singers of the 2013 hit song Blurred Lines, lost to Marvin Gaye’s estate. The court ruled that “Blurred Lines” has copied the expression Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” despite the two songs having different chords and lyrics.

What are the exceptions to copyright infringement?

With this case setting a precedent, you might worry that creating content in the internet might be considered intentional copyright infringement. There are actually three exceptions to the copyright infringement rules—when the material is not copyrightable, when the material is in the public domain, and when the usage is considered “fair use”.

Materials that cannot be copyrighted include facts, those created by the United States Government, and works that are not fixed in a tangible form of expression.

The public domain refers to created work that is no longer covered by copyright law. The duration of the protection of the law is the creator’s life plus 70 years. After this, the public can use the material without license fees paid to the author or their heirs.

Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night public domain painting

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is in the Public Domain

Finally, “fair use” is the use of copyright material in a limited purpose, usually to comment, criticize, or parody. For instance, if you are writing a review of a book or a response to an article, the principle of fair use allows you to reproduce some of the work without getting explicit permission from the owner. This principle, however, is still subject to debate and is judged on a case to case basis.

As you go on with creating content for marketing purposes, you should have two concerns. First, you should avoid having your work infringed by others. Second, you should avoid infringing upon another person’s copyright.

The first thing you need to do is to explicitly state on your content site the rights that you reserve to yourself and the rights that you give to others. In this way, your readers can know how much they could use in their own work, something that can be beneficial for the both of you. If you don’t know how to do it, you can use the format created by Creative Commons which lets you choose how your creation can be used.


Creative Commons Licences

Conversely, if you are going to use content created by others, there are plenty of ways you can do so without committing copyright infringement. Works and images in the public domain can be used in your articles without the need for attribution. For images and content not in the public domain, you should first check what rights the owner gives to the third party. You can usually find this in a separate page called Content Policy on websites. Image sharing sites like Flickr usually includes the type of licensing that they allow in the image page. When in doubt, it is best to contact the copyright owner before using any of their work.

Technology is continually changing the way we live. While it provided an easier way to express our ideas, it also created complications on the way copyright works. It may be easy to just copy and paste text and images in a blog article but at the end of the day, the law still applies. Before you start creating your content, be sure to take these concepts into consideration to prevent liabilities in the future.