Five Steps for Avoiding Copyright Conflicts

Filed as Features on December 10, 2007 8:38 am

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It is a blogger’s worst nightmare.

Your site is done completely. You have no FTP access and your Web host is not reporting a problem with the server. You call tech support and find that your account has been locked and you’re told to check your email. There, you find a notice from your host’s abuse team informing you that your account was disabled for a copyright violation.

What follows is often an exercise in frustration. A torrent of emails and phone calls result in some progress, but the clock is always ticking. It can take hours, even days, for a downed site to come back online, if it is possible at all. Many times the best alternative is to obtain backups and move elsewhere.

As frightening as this is for anyone who cares about their site, it is the frequent outcome of copyright conflicts on the Web. Though many bloggers that experience this scenario deserve the of treatment for their actions, some well-intended bloggers go through the same ordeal only because they didn’t take necessary precautions to avoid trouble.

However, these situations are both avoidable and easily mitigated against, all one has to do is take a few reasonable precautions and the nightmare threat fades away.

1. Use Your Own Content Whenever Possible

A simple enough rule that is easier said than done. Remember though that your site is a showcase for your talent and your works. Always favor posting items that you create over using someone else’s work.

This means writing your own entries, taking your own screenshots, using you own photos and building your own templates, at least as much as is practical.

While this is an impossible rule to its extreme, especially when you get down to templates and blogging software, the critical thing is to not use someone else’s work when you can simply create your own. This avoids potential copyright conflicts before they have the chance to happen by simply not copying a work to start with.

2. If You Use Another’s Content, Obtain Permission

Again, a simple rule, but an important one. If you are in a position where you have to use someone else’s work, obtain permission either in writing or via a Creative Commons License.

When you do that, follow the licensing terms strictly, including the lesser-known Creative Commons requirements, and make note that you decided to use the content under the license you did. This is especially important if you used a non-commercial work and, later on, decide to monetize your site.

However, before using someone else’s work under such a license, be sure check and make sure that the person you are licensing it from has the authority. If they are not the original author or creator, track that person down and obtain permission directly from them.

Finally, if practical, consider locating public domain material to reuse as that is even more ideal than Creative Commons for this type of reuse.

3. Don’t Rely on Fair Use

Relying on fair use to avoid a conflict is like relying on a seat belt to avoid a crash. Both are very important and both can save your neck in the event something goes wrong, but they only protect you after something bad has already happened.

If you need to use someone else’s content and obtaining permission is out of the question, (EX: Writing a negative review), make sure that your use of content is far on the right side of fair use. Use as little of the content as you need, meaning quote sparingly, make sure that it comprises a small portion of your original work and make your use of the work transformative, not substitutive.

In short, make sure that your use of the content is not designed to replace the original, but rather, creates a new work. Ideally, this new work should offer commentary or criticism of the original or at least provide some news or educational value.

You can’t rely on fair use to avoid a conflict, especially if a copyright holder has an inflated view of their rights, but the more clear your flex your fair use rights, the less likely such a conflict becomes.

4. Be Available

Make sure that you, or someone else who can handle such matters, can easily be contacted through your site. Offer an email address in a prominent location and check that account regularly.

Most copyright holders, if given a choice, will attempt to contact the site owner directly first. As a Webmaster, you would greatly prefer that a person with a copyright complaint would contact you, thus enabling you to resolve the matter quietly and without service interruptions, rather than escalating it to your host.

Making yourself the lightning rod for copyright complaints might mean that you get a nasty email, but it avoids a much worse situation down the road.

5. Choose Good Hosting

The sad truth is that a small number of copyright conflicts are unavoidable and handful of rightsholders have become completely unhinged. For those cases, it is important to have good hosts that will work with you, rather than against you, on such matters.

The simple truth is that hosts respond differently to DMCA notices and other copyright complaints. Some take down the entire domain, such as iPowerWeb, and others will either surgially remove the content or ask the Webmaster to do it for them. For the subject of the DMCA notice, the latter two are greatly preferred.

The general rule is that the larger the host, the less incentive they have to work with you. Though DreamHost seems to buck that trend, most larger Web hosts simply cut off access to the account rather than spend time or money resolving the situation. The same is true, with some exceptions, for free Web hosts.

Finding a smaller company is a good first step. However, you can further mitigate against a host shutdown by using a third-party DNS service. In the unlikely event that your host did disable your account over a copyright matter, you could easily point your DNS to another server and get your site back online more quickly than going through the motions at your existing host.

However, this requires that you have a full backup of your site at all times from which you can restore and the ability to create another hosting account quickly.

Conclusions

As scary as conflicts can be and as much press as they sometimes get, they are exceedingly rare.

Most bloggers, if they operate in good faith and don’t engage in any risky behaviors, will never experience any kind of copyright troubles. Of those who do, the vast majority of conflicts are resolved without any major catastrophe. At worst, there is a heated email exchange and a few terse words back and forth on the Web.

However, for those rare exceptions, the consequences are severe enough to warrant mitigating the risk.

The same as we don’t host with companies that have high downtimes or run software that has known problems, we shouldn’t engage in risky copyright behaviors that can interrupt our site.

Simply put, the power of the Web means nothing if our site goes dark, taking our expression with it. It is worth taking a few moments and a few precautions to avoid copyright conflicts, especially since most are so preventable to begin with.

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