Who Owns What? Exploring Copyright Options for Blogs

Imagine waking up one day to an email from your buddy with the subject line, “Someone stole your blog post!” You click on the link within the email and sure enough, someone copied one of your popular posts, “Seven Surprising Uses for Castor Oil,” pretty much word for word.

As the saying goes, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. However, no one wants to see their uncredited work show up somewhere else. So you’ll want to do something to protect your blog — but perhaps you’re not sure how copyright for blogs works, and what rights you can actually claim.

To protect both your work and yourself against inadvertent copyright infringement, here’s a beginner’s guide to copyright for blogs. You’ll learn the basics of content ownership online, including who owns the content you post and what content you can and cannot post on your own site.

What is yours?

According to Copyright.gov, your material is automatically copyrighted the second you put it out into the world. That means any original content that you produce on your own website — whether it’s a blog post you wrote, a clever “About Me” page that tells readers more about you, or those beautiful photographs you spent hours editing — belongs to you and is copyrighted by default.

People cannot legally copy and paste something you wrote onto their own blog, or save and upload one of your photos without your permission. However, they can quote something you said (and hopefully link back to your site). If you grant users permission, they can also reproduce your content and photos on their own websites. There are ways to prevent content theft, such as putting watermarks (text or images overlaid onto your photos) on your images or adding a copyright notice to your website. In the event that you discover someone using your work on their own site without your permission, the content marketing company HubSpot shares some tips on fighting it. If it comes to it, you can also file a Digital Millenium Copyright Act notice.

What is theirs?

Sometimes you’ll want to include an image in your blog post — for example, a post about your latest obsession with passion fruit desserts — but you don’t have one on hand. You conduct a Google image search for “passion fruit,” find an image you like, and add it to your site. Of course, you give photo credit to PassionFruitLove, and link to its site. Totally legit, right?

Unfortunately, that could still land you in legal trouble. Not everything that you find on Google is fair game, even if you do attribute and link back to the image’s owner. This includes adding photos from other bloggers’ sites (if you’re doing a roundup of Popsicle craft projects, for instance) or incorporating written text, songs, or images found from Google searches.

When in doubt, write a letter or shoot an email to the company or owner of the material and ask if you have their permission to include it on your website. Sometimes the owner will write back and say that it’s okay to use their image, as long as you link back to their original post. They could also deny your request, or you might not hear back from them at all. However, it’s better to err on the side of caution and not include an image on your blog than risk being sued later.

What can you use?

While you can’t just grab anything from the Internet and put it on your blog, there are resources for licensed materials that you do have permission to use, either for free or for a fee. The “free” category is known as Creative Commons, which is a special license that grants you permission to use or rework online materials for your own site (free of charge) if you attribute the work’s original owner. You can find work under the license from a variety of sources, including Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, or Creative Commons.

You should always attribute the image’s owner and link back to its original source. An attribution is the blogging version of the citations that you included in the term papers you wrote back in school, where you gave credit to the original author and source of your quotations. The Creative Commons Wiki shares the best practices for giving proper attribution.

When using material that falls under the Creative Commons license, be sure to fully read the license so you know exactly when you have permission to use. Some work listed under the license cannot be used commercially, while some work cannot be altered in any way. If you receive any form of payment for your blog (through sponsored blog posts, for example), it’s best to avoid using images or borrowed content that cannot be used commercially. Even if you want to use someone’s work for a blog post that you’re not being paid to write, it’s best to choose content that can be used commercially instead. Likewise, if you want to add text to an image, make sure the image can be altered in this way.

There are also websites that allow you to purchase copyrighted materials, such as photographs, fonts, and music, which you can use on your website. In these cases, other people purchase them as well — just because you paid for an image doesn’t mean you own it exclusively. Be prepared to see these images used on other websites and blogs. Like using free materials, always check the license of your purchased content to make sure you’re using it properly.

With a little bit of time and research, you can take the proper steps to protect your own work and avoid inadvertently using copyrighted material. At the end of the day, sharing is caring (if done properly). Avoid using content from another website without crediting the owner, and take the proper actions if you discover that a website is illegally repurposing content that you own.