How to avoid infringing copyright
Why breaking copyright law can be an easy mistake to make, and how to avoid reputational damage.
With the growth of the internet, the variety and quantity of images we can access have grown to a level that would have been unimaginable just a generation ago, when sourcing an image amounted to a lot more than clicking on a link. But with this ever-increasing availability of images comes the growing risk of their misuse, with printers today facing more challenges than ever to ensure they don’t make a mistake.
As printing technology has evolved, the issue of intellectual property has always been a consideration. In the beginning, copyright was only applied to the written word and authors had little or no protection at all, with newly published works being copied widely and printed by competitors within days. Various ad hoc arrangements were made to limit this sharp practice around the turn of the 18th century; in 1710 the Copyright Act was passed in London, at last offering authors some sort of guarantee that they would benefit from their work for a set period of time (14 years, initially, but subsequently lengthened).
Inevitably, the following decades saw plenty of struggle between authors, printers and legislators, and laws were revised and rewritten. At the start of the 20th century, sheet music was also brought under the scope of copyright legislation, much to the relief of impoverished songwriters. With the 20th century also came new technologies such as photography and music recording, both of which in turn would find themselves subject to intellectual property legislation.
If any image interests you, you must make sure you contact the content creator before you use it
Printing, meanwhile, continues to leap ahead – it’s not all about books and sheet music any more, but also mugs, T-shirts, promotional material and countless other uses. As this technology has advanced, so has our ability to source and create images, with the likes of Google Images, Wikipedia and AI sources of artificially-created digital images such as DALL-E 2 all at our fingertips. So what exactly are the dos and don’ts of image use concerning today’s copyright minefield?
Dos and don’ts
Imagine you’re tasked with rapidly finding an image of, say, Rio de Janeiro and you don’t already happen to have someone based there. At this point you might be tempted to do a Google Image search and grab what you’re looking for from the browser… but that’s to be avoided. If any image interests you, you must make sure you contact the content creator – who may be a freelance photographer or just an amateur – who has uploaded the image to a blog before you use it.
This process can be time-consuming and unproductive. However, a decision to continue using images without copyright approval exposes you to the risk of a cease and desist order or retrospective licensing costs. Cease and desist orders result in a good deal of wasted time and, at worst, the scrapping of a print job.
Thankfully there are more straightforward options available, and one of the best resources to turn to is Wikimedia Commons, a huge library of images uploaded by their creators that are free to use. That said, the vast majority of the images to be found there require an attribution to the creator, which seems like a small price to pay. By and large, images can be modified, as long as the modified image is also made available under the same terms. Each image link contains details of the content creator, so it’s hard to go wrong.
One more traditional method is to use a stock image from an established company. This way you can be sure you’ve got the usage rights, but may need to be paid for. Some of the larger stock image companies have a reputation for litigation, and it’s advisable not to take them for granted. Other companies, such as Unsplash, Pexels and Pixabay, offer royalty-free images that you don’t have to provide attribution for, so it’s definitely worthwhile checking those out first.
Not checking for permissions can lead to image creators tracking you down quite easily using a reverse image search that could lead to a cease and desist order
Other restrictions to stock images may include editorial-only use (not commercial), not being used as part of a logo or trademark, and not using persons or properties in the image to look like they are endorsing your product – so always check the small print.
Not checking for permissions can lead to image creators tracking you down quite easily using a reverse image search that could lead to a cease and desist order. Regardless of your intention, unauthorized use of images is classed as image theft. This can be financially damaging and harmful to your reputation.
At the more cutting-edge end of the spectrum, AI-created imagery (for example DALL-E 2) has emerged over recent years. Images that aren’t created by an actual human aren’t subject to copyright, but it is important to remember that they do generally require attribution (to the AI source) and cannot be passed off as original works.
3D printing rights
Finally, it’s worth giving some thought to the developing technology of 3D printing, and consider what additional issues may arise as a result of its development. Copyright law still protects objects that can be replicated in this way, so it’s important to get authorisation. Potentially, trademark and patent law (for anything with a technical function) might also come into play here. If you’re downloading a CAD design file from a reputable website, it should come with its own Creative Commons licence, which will make clear whether the 3D printed object can be used for commercial purposes, or whether its use is confined to strictly non-commercial ends.
Copyright law with regard to 3D printing is still very much a work in progress, and it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for any developments in this field
If you’re downloading a file that doesn’t come with such a licence, that could spell trouble further down the line. Copyright law with regard to 3D printing is still very much a work in progress, and it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for any developments in this field.
As technology continues to develop, it’s likely that further considerations will become relevant, so it is important not to take anything for granted.
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