How copyright can kill your business - and how to avoid it

Colin Bates
Director | Mackenzie & Dorman
26th November 2019

Copyright infringement could be the death knell of your business.  Even larger companies, well-established and well-funded, would struggle to survive the financial and reputational damage caused by breaching copyright law.  Therefore, the easy answer is don’t do it. You should buy the license, hire a professional or produce the copy for your business yourself.

The dilemma faced by small businesses

We appreciate it is not that easy.

You are starting a business, and you are trying to gain traction.  As yet, you are not big enough, nor established enough, to warrant a partnership with a marketing company.  You are working hard to produce your own in-store marketing, online social media posts, advertising and more.  Paying a professional photographer, copywriter, videographer, graphic designer, etc. is costly, and you are working within tight profit margins.

You realise your limitations, and you know that your personal creativity is limited. The online world is highly convenient. There are millions upon millions of pages of images, text, video, music and more that can be reused for your purpose.  It is also easy to perceive that the world of the internet is so vast that it would be almost impossible to find out you had breached the copyright on the item.

You may feel that this law does not apply to you, as you are a small entity and you are doing no real harm. You might have a Robin Hood complex about this. Big corporations like Disney have pots and pots of gold, undue influence over the global marketplace and they shouldn’t be petty enough to sue you for using their image in your social media posts.  

The consequences to you and others

You may feel that larger corporations wouldn’t care about you using their materials for the promotion of your small business. However, they really do care, and they have whole departments given the brief to find breaches to the copyright they hold and to take legal action.  You could argue this is petty – or you could see it for what it is – you are stealing the time, effort and money invested in creating the product. Large companies like Disney pay creative professionals vast sums of money to create the graphics and moving images that you may be re-attributing to your business.

You might feel comforted by the knowledge that you would never take on a large corporation like Disney. You immediately understand that they own the original product and know you cannot copy. Do you feel the same way if it is a random photograph or a small-time blog? Are you happier to right-click, select copy and then paste if the person is a sole-trader or an emerging company? You might believe this enterprise will have limited resources and reach to discover your illegality.

However, think about this. You are a small business. You are trying to gain traction in a competitive market.  If you are a shop on the High Street and someone comes in and shoplifts something off your shelf, you would feel you have the right to feel aggrieved. Your potential for earnings is being stolen. A start-up writer or designer is equally reliant on the money paid for the work they produce. You are taking products from their shelves.

Potential solutions

Your first duty is to understand copyright law.  The creator owns all creative products for a limited period.  The purpose of this copyright is to protect the original expression.  If another person takes this expression, or the other person’s work is blatantly derivative, then the creator has the right to sue the other. Therefore, the simple solution is not to use work produced by another unless you have permission.  

This does not mean that you must produce all materials yourself or pay for the license to use copyrighted material. There are sites on the internet that offer material that is copyright free.  If you search for creative commons, you can find free to use the content. Equally, if you go to the advanced search on a search engine like Google, you can request they only show images that are free for use for commercial purposes. If you want to edit the material, you will need to search for images that permit this too.

If you look at the terms and conditions on news outlet sites, you may find that they allow reproduction of small chunks of text – a headline, a paragraph.  However, they would likely expect to have this material attributed to them. Also, they are unlikely to be unwilling to allow you to edit or to use the content in a way that does not honour the sentiment of the original.

Alternatively, in the spirit of helping others establish a business, you could employ other small company to produce material for you.  For small companies struggling to get started, they would be grateful for your custom and would likely do a deal for a positive testimonials and recommendations.   

About the Author

Colin Bates is the Director of Mackenzie and Dorman, a leading solicitors based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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