7 Copyright Excuses You May Be Guilty of Committing

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7 Copyright Excuses You May Be Guilty of Committing

This blog post was written by Katrina.


I’m not going to insult the reader and explain the definition of copyright. We all know it exists, and sometimes we even pretend we’re following copyright laws, except sometimes we don’t fully understand the law or have been told someone’s incorrect interpretation of it.

US copyright law differs from the laws in other nations. Beware of someone in the EU trying to give you copyright law advice if you live in the US. They probably haven’t studied US law or simply read a blog article and think they can now teach you a thing or two. This article refers to US copyright laws only, so take heed that you learn the laws where you live and where you design. If you’re designing content for clients who live in the United States, you’ll need to sharpen your copyright law knowledge because if your client gets sued, guess who that client will go after to pay for the damages?

1. But it’s so complicated!

Yes, US copyright law is confusing and complicated. Even if you need legal advice, you can’t just go to any defense attorney and expect him to be proficient in Copyrights or Intellectual Property Law. Do some research at the Copyright Office website and if you need more help, hire a trustworthy lawyer.

2. But I changed it by 30%!

I blame my Illustration teacher for claiming that all we needed to do was change something by 30%, and we weren’t violating copyright laws. But the problem is there is no such thing as the 30% rule for copyrights. How can you know when you’ve changed someone’s design to make it your own? When you get sued, you’ll know.

A piece of art, music, or literature needs to be substantially different to avoid copyright. Is your work substantially similar to the original? If so, you didn’t change it enough. Go back and do more.

3. All fonts are safe to use, right?

Designers today have taken to interchangeably using the term font when they mean typeface. What’s the difference? Think of a font as the software you’re using, you use that software to place it onto your canvas on the computer, and then you use that font software to change the size, how thick it is, and more. That’s the font.

So now, what’s the typeface? The typeface is the style. It’s what you see. The font is the coding, and the typeface is what you see. If you’re creating graphics for your site using fonts, you need to make sure that the license is free to use as you intend, and if a purchase is necessary for that license, buy it or use a different font. Once you obey that initial font usage license, your exported png of the graphic for your site becomes copyrighted to you or your client, even though the typeface is still visible in the image. A typeface is not typically copyrighted, as shown below.


“Typeface, Fonts, and Lettering Copyright law does not protect typeface or mere variations of typographical ornamentation or lettering. A typeface is a set of letters, numbers, or other characters with repeating design elements intended to be used in composing text or other combinations of characters, including calligraphy. Generally, typeface, fonts, and lettering are building blocks of expression used to create authorship works. The Office cannot register a claim to copyright in typeface or mere variations of typographic ornamentation or lettering, regardless of whether the typeface is commonly used or unique. There are some minimal cases where the Office may register typeface types, type font, lettering, or calligraphy. For more information, see chapter 900, section 906.4 of the Compendium. To register copyrightable content, you should describe the surface decoration or other ornamentation and explain how it is separable from the typeface characters.”

4. I didn’t see a copyright notice!

You don’t have to see a copyright notice for something to be protected. Literary, musical, and artistic works have been saved for 70 years. And please don’t think that your little disclaimer saying you don’t own the work or content is protecting you because you still need the author/artist’s permission before using it.

How about comments on a blog or forum? That’s another animal to get into with Intellectual Property rights and agreements made according to the site’s Terms of Use before posting. It’s another article for another day.

5. Big companies won’t spend their time going after a bit guy like me!

Oh yeah? You might want to rethink that strategy. Check out Rogers vs. Koons, The Associated Press vs. Fairey, and even Disney has gone after Etsy sellers for copyright infringement. Don’t rely on your small stature in thinking you’ll squeak by without getting noticed for any infringements. You never know who might come across your page or your work.

6. But, but, Fair Use!

Fair use is not a legitimate excuse for ignorance of the law. It’s far easier to get permission from the owner, use creative commons or stock, solve all problems, and create your work entirely. Fair use isn’t meant to get around copyright laws; instead, it forms a balance between the copyright holders and those who need it for commenting, criticizing, reporting, teaching, etc...

7. Safe Harbor Act has my back!

Oh? Did you get a Copyright Agent and submit it to the Copyright Office? If you expect your online forum or blog to be covered under the Safe Harbor Act, you’ll need to follow the requirements first. Guess what? It’s not retroactive, which means if you sign up with a Copyright Agent today, the things on your site from yesterday are not covered under the Safe Harbor Act.

As an artist, I rely on copyright laws to protect my creations. As an Admin on different forums, I know I’ve probably failed to ensure that other creators have their rights covered as much as I expect mine to be. Even though my Illustrator teacher back at the Academy wasn’t always correct in his legal knowledge, he did ingrain into the class the importance of respecting the work of other artists.

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