Yet Another Reason to Play Fair

Written: 16-Aug-2012 | | Filed under: Content & Copy,Industry Buzz

With over 200 ranking signals (and counting) already in place, Google recently announced they’re going to begin using a new signal in their search rankings — the number of copyright take-down notices a domain has accrued. According to a recent announcement, “Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results.”

However, having had the experience of having one of my sites lifted whole and reused by someone else, I have to say I applaud Google’s move.

Of course, they don’t say how many reports it takes to be considered “a high number.” I speculate it would be some sort of sliding scale: a lower number for domains with only a few pages, a higher number for domains with thousands of pages? That would make sense to me, at least.

If you have enough copyright take-down requests tallied up against you to trigger this penalty, it’s likely you haven’t just copied one or two articles you liked, or used one person’s copyrighted cartoon or photograph to illustrate your blog post. No, by the time it gets to that point, you’ve been a very naughty website owner.

So, how to avoid getting on Google’s naughty list?

  • Just because it’s published online, that doesn’t make it free for you to use. In fact, because it’s published online, chances are it’s covered by copyright, and you must get permission from the copyright-holder (and possibly pay royalties) before you re-publish.
  • Same thing goes for books and magazines. And photographs. And cartoons. And videos, movies and sound recordings. Any “creative expression,” really. Get permission, pay any necessary royalties or licensing fees… or be prepared to get a copyright notice filed against you. Possibly find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit. And maybe lose your search rankings, to boot.
  • In fact, if it was initially published anywhere, in any form, after 1923, chances are it’s covered. It doesn’t even need to have been published, in many cases; most creative expressions are covered from the moment they’re created.
  • It is not necessary for the copyright holder to have registered their copyright with the Copyright Office for their work to be covered. It isn’t even necessary for them to include a copyright notice on the work. In other words, even if it doesn’t say it’s covered, it’s covered.
  • One big exception: stuff published by the US federal government. Because they were paid for by taxpayer money, most federal publications are automatically public domain. So go ahead and quote the Department of Labor or the EPA or the latest Supreme Court decision all you want.
  • Another exception: press releases. Well, technically, as far as I know there’s nothing that legally exempts press releases from copyright coverage. It’s just that it would be kinda stupid for a company to issue a press release to get publicity and then complain when others give them the publicity they want by quoting from the press release.
  • “But what about fair use?” I hear you say. True, “fair use” exceptions do allow you to use copyrighted material without permission under certain circumstances. However, the criteria are tricky and every year there are plenty of lawsuits filed by copyright holders who believe someone has overstepped the boundaries of fair use. It’s very much a case of “proceed at your own risk” where fair use is concerned.

You can get a lot more information about what’s covered by copyright, what you’re allowed to do under the provisions of “fair use,” and pretty much anything else you want to know about copyrights at the US Copyright Office website. Don’t fret about being faced with a lot of legal gobbledegook; their content is generally in plain language and fairly easy to understand.

Bottom line: it’s almost always safer to exercise your creativity (or pay someone else to exercise their creativity on your behalf) and come up with something original. It will take more effort, more time and possibly more money, but last I checked no one ever claimed making something worthwhile is supposed to be cheap and easy.

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