I have been working on the web for a long time, so I come across a lot of really nice people who have misguided understanding of copyright on the Internet. I am not a copyright lawyer but I know enough to keep things legal and ethical. It’s never fun for me to have to tell someone that they are stealing, especially when I know their greatest sin is that of ignorance. It is not a comfortable conversation for me, or for them. However, this does happen enough in my professional life so I decided that I should write a post about it. Here are the most common mistakes when it comes to internet content theft/copyright infringement:

1. Thinking that since you credit the author or where it comes from it is not stealing

This is by far the most common mistake people make. While “fair use” doctrine does mean you can quote in short amounts, quoting an entire article or most of it will not qualify as fair use. By crediting someone’s work, you are not plagiarizing, but that does not mean that you are not committing copyright infringement.

2. Thinking if you found an image on Google it is “public domain”

Public domain means work such as federal government documents, materials produced before 1923 and materials produced before 1977 without a copyright notice. It does not mean anything you find on the internet via a search engine.¬†“I found it on Google” is not a defense against copyright infringement. I had to inform a client that he couldn’t just use any image that he found on Google on his site.

3. ¬†Thinking it’s okay to use something since it doesn’t have a copyright message

Before 1977, copyright notice was required but copyright law changed in 1978, according to the adoption of the Berne Convention, to abolish that requirement. In the 167 countries including United States that are signatories to the Berne Convention, unless it is specifically dedicated to public domain, work is assumed to be copyrighted even without any copyright message or registration.

4. Thinking it is okay because you are not making money off it

Certainly if you were making money off it there will be greater claims on damages in court, but the mere act of copying the content and using it without permission means that you have infringed on copyright. If you are using an image, a piece of music, a video or any tangible content on your personal or business website that you don’t have the right to use, then you are infringing on copyright law. Would it be stealing if you took something that belonged to someone without their permission if you didn’t turn around and make money off it? Yes.

5. Thinking it will be okay as long as you take it down once you receive a takedown notice

People think that the worst thing that can happen to them if they copy stuff and use it is that they would receive a takedown notice, and they would simply remove it and that will be the end of it. That is not always the case. Sometimes people get sued big time in court. Would you be okay taking that risk?

Google, for example, has updated their search engine algorithm to penalize websites for content theft. Since May 2012 Google’s algorithm has been updated to penalize duplicate content, and your website may be automatically or manually penalized.

6. Thinking it is ok since other people do it

Because other people do it is not a great reason for breaking the law, you know that right? Well, plenty of people thought that same thing and got their butts sued in the order of millions of dollars by the music industry for downloading a handful of songs. Don’t be one of those people. Check out this informative infographic on music copyright infringement.

7. Thinking it’s okay just because it has the Creative Common label

The Creative Common license is less restrictive than standard copyright but there are many levels of permissions and you need to read the fine print. Below is a screenshot from Creative Common website:

Be careful to follow the license instructions!


The internet is made for sharing but there is a proper etiquette for doing it. Contribute to the richness of the internet by providing your own voice and link to materials that you reference. Learn about copyright law and play nice!


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