The (responsible) marketer’s guide to copyright law

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Emily Mason

It’s no secret that social media is the easiest and cheapest way to promote your business. I mean, there are 4.5 billion (with a B!) social media users out there— that’s more than half of the global population. With so many potential clients at your fingertips, it’s no wonder that most companies have social media accounts.

Have you heard the term “content creator” floating around the world of digital marketing? Previously a fancy name for a social media influencer, the term can now also applies to companies like yours— even if you’re a team of insurance brokers and would never be caught dead doing the ice bucket challenge. If your company posts online to promote your business, you and Kim Kardashian are (technically speaking) on the same playing field.

But as a wise man in a Spiderman suit once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” A key part of being in the ‘content creator club’ is following copyright law. Violating copyright will not only get your content taken down but could also lead to legal action against your company.

To avoid legal trouble and brand reputation damage from a copyright scandal, make sure you know the basics of copyright law for marketers.

What does “copyright” even mean?

Copyright is the ownership and legal protection that creator's have of their original work. This includes all forms of creativity such as photographs, digital art, music, written articles, videos, etc.

Abiding by copyright law may seem overzealous when you just need a cute cat pic to throw on the ‘gram. But in the end, it all boils down to one simple idea: if you want to use content that isn’t yours, you need to ask permission. That’s someone else’s cat.

What is protected by copyright?

It’s actually pretty simple: in most cases, if someone created something and posted it online, they own it. This means that nobody else should use it without permission, unless they give them credit and link back to the original work.

Obviously, this isn’t always how it goes down. If you notice your work posted without permission, most social media apps have a “Report” function to help you get things settled.

How to properly use stock photography and music in your marketing

According to famed marketer Jeff Bullas, articles with images get 94% more views. We don’t blame you for wanting a piece of that pie. So if you’re going to go this route, you have three options:

  • Take your own pictures in-house
  • Buy the rights to someone else’s work
  • Use free stock photography

… needless to say, most marketing teams have become well-acquainted with stock photo sites. Copyright-free content is a marketer’s dream come true. Content that is copyright-free is, you guessed it, exempt from all the laws we just learned about, and can be used for commercial purposes. Sites like Pexels, Unsplash and Soundstripe have come a long way over the last few years. With a quick search, you can find high-quality photos, video clips and audio recordings to use.

But if the free stuff isn’t cutting it, there are also various paid stock sites that provide higher quality material. If you have room in your budget, this may be something to consider if you want to make your marketing top-tier.

But before you go copyright-free crazy on us, there are some important things you need to be aware of:

  1. Although this content is ‘copyright-free’, it’s important to double-check that the images you have selected are for commercial use. Some sites only license content for personal use, so be careful. It’s a jungle out there.
  2. Before you post the stock asset, check the site to see if you need to provide an attribution. (Some creators who offer their art for free still want you to credit them when you post it.) Luckily, an attribution can be as simple as putting a small note in the post’s caption. You can always write an attribution regardless; it’s better to be safe than sorry.

The rules for re-posting or using other people and brand’s content

Have you noticed that one of your favourite brands is killing it with content on social media recently? Well, if done correctly, you can actually use this brand’s content for your own marketing.

The first order of business is to ask the brand for permission. This can be as simple as messaging them, “Hey! We would love to share this image on our company’s social media. Please contact us if you're interested in discussing the rights to the work.”

Once you have received permission, always, always reference the original source. As mentioned, some social media sites do this work for you. For example, when you repost an image on Instagram or retweet something on Twitter, the site automatically credits the creator. But when in doubt, ask the brand or creator how they would like to be attributed.

How to protect your own digital assets

We’ve talked a lot about using other people’s content but what about protecting your own?

The main way to protect your work is to copyright your marketing materials. Canadian businesses can register for a copyright certificate, which confirms they are the owner of the content. If something should go awry, it’ll be easier to enforce your rights if you have the paperwork.

For more guidance on filing a copyright application, you can consult the Canadian Copyright Office or an intellectual property lawyer.

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