Man is stealing idea

While copyright laws vary between different jurisdictions, they all seem to have one thing in common – none have effectively kept up with the digital age that includes easy-to-make websites and social media. These mediums have dramatically changed how we create and distribute content and there is a lot ambiguity around what practices are actually legal.

Confusion around current rules is clear. According to Google’s Transparency Report, over 91 million URLs received a copyright removal request in the last month. Our connected world, and social media in particular, have made content very easy to duplicate and share. But just because everyone else is doing it, does it mean it’s lawful?


When someone creates any sort of original work, they own the copyright. They can keep the rights to their work or they can transfer it to someone else. No one other than the copyright owner is entitled to use that exact content without permission.

The one exception to this is fair use which permits unlicensed use of copyright-protected work for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research without the need of permission from the copyright owner. This allows critics to quote books and film, students to cite other people’s research and art teachers to show artwork in class.

For content marketing, posting facts and statistics from a source is generally not considered an infringement because underlying facts are not protected by copyright. However, duplicating the source article of the fact or statistic might be a copyright infringement.

Using company logos and major symbols is generally fine, as long as the logos are not used to mislead readers. But many major brands will have rules and guidelines on how their logos can be used.

Transformative Use

Transformative use is permitted as fair use. This is when an original piece is transformed or used to create something new and not merely copied. The transformed work needs to add new expression, meaning, message, aesthetics or information to the original material. Examples of transformative uses include parodies and remixes.

But keep in mind that this is a relatively new part of copyright law and is still developing. Accordingly, there is a lot of room for argument and interpretation on the degree of transformations.

What About Animated GIFs?

Whether portraying a reaction or adding humor, animated GIFs are becoming increasingly popular. GIFs from TV and film are especially popular, but are they legal to use in your content?

In October 2015, @Deadspin and @SBNationaGIF Twitter accounts were suspended after posting GIF highlights from NFL video clips. Whether the NFL filed a Digital Media Copyright Act (DMCA) complaint with Twitter for copyright infringement or simply asked for Twitter to remove the posts, the GIFs used likely did not meet the requirement of transformative use. The “heart” of the original content was still there and likely taking views away from the company’s website.

Using copyright GIFs in content is a relatively new concept. The legality of posting them is still fairly unknown, with debate on both sides. According to Peter Van Valkenburgh, fair use, specifically transformative use, can be used as a defense for makers of GIFs. But according to AdWeek, in order to post animated GIFs of celebrity or TV/movie scenes without facing any legal repercussion requires getting permission from everyone in the clip, as well as the copyright owner.

Social Media

Sharing other people’s posts on social media will vary between each platform.  Fortunately, all of the major platforms provide a comprehensive Terms of Service page listing the expectations of their users.

  • Pinterest: The rights of the contents posted on Pinterest belongs to the original poster, but users are free to share it.
  • Twitter: Twitter will respond to DMCA complaints for unauthorized uses of images, videos and tweets linking to infringing materials. However, Twitter will make exceptions under fair use.
  • Facebook: Users own the content and information that they post on Facebook, and can control how it is shared through their privacy settings. Publically published content will allow everyone, including people off Facebook, to access and use the content.
  • LinkedIn: Users are allowed to access and share content according to the privacy settings and degree of connection of the original poster.

Possible Solutions

There is lots you can do to avoid breaking copyright laws. Here are a few suggestions:

  • When in doubt, do not use material that was created by someone else.
  • Ask for permission from the copyright owner if you wish to use their work.
  • Pay for the right to use and/or own copyright-protected content. This applies to hiring external writers and stock images.
  • Take advantage of creative commons material and material owned by the public domain. The material is free and some even allow for commercial use. Check out Flickr’s Creative Commons page to get started.
  • Create your own original content. Snapping your own photos, designing your own images and writing your own content will give you the automatic rights.


The copyright laws are meant to protect the original creators.  Although the laws haven’t caught up with the internet, many of the basic concepts still apply.  It is important for writers and content marketers to familiarize themselves with current copyright laws, and to read and respect the terms of use of any website they gather resources from.