Fair Use: A guide to citations & avoiding plagiarism on the web

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Use this guide to determine when sharing a picture, quote or video in a content marketing context is fair use and when it's a violation of copyright law.

Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.
- Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1902

The internet is full of pictures, text and videos,  much of it unique – but there’s also a lot of duplicate content. Individual users share photos with one another freely and pull data from articles, and they don’t seem to get in trouble. Yet businesses publishing content have to walk a fine line, or they risk legal ramifications. So why you should be concerned with copyright law when it comes to content marketing?

Let’s say you sell Enterprise IT software, and part of your strategy is to review hardware your clients might buy to run your products. You want to include a picture of a server model, as well as some quotes from the manufacturer about how it performs. The only problem is you don’t have explicit permission to include them on your site. Is it OK to include them on your blog?

Walking a narrow intellectual tightrope

Copyright law is mostly determined in courts, but every once in a while the government has to step in and make things clear – especially as technology evolves. The Copyright Act of 1976 was one of these attempts, and it laid the groundwork for the bulk of business-to-business intellectual property interactions on the web to this day. In particular, it defined ‘fair use’ as an exception to generally accepted copyright law. Basically, it allows people to take some things they find on the internet and use them for certain purposes without violating copyright laws.

So what does fair use entail? For the publication of intellectual property to be considered fair use, it should (but doesn’t necessarily have to) take the following considerations into account:

1. The purpose and character of the use is commercial in nature
2. The nature of the copyrighted work
3. The amount used in relation to the whole
4. The effect use has on the value of the whole

books bibliography citation references fair use content marketing

Sound confusing? That’s because it is. Mark Twain was right about copyright law – it could be a lot clearer. But here’s one way to wrap your mind around it: You’re probably violating copyright law if your use of an idea, picture or concept is preventing copyright holders from making money on them. Bootleg DVDs and pirated music could potentially hurt the creators’ bottom line, but including a brief snippet and picture in a blog about a new device might not. In fact, it might even help it.

Walking between copyright lines

We’ve covered the some difficult concepts related to copyrights on the web, but what should you actually do to make sure your content marketing efforts aren’t violating intellectual property agreements? Follow these five rules to avoid plagiarizing content and violating fair use.

1. Use more original content than borrowed
The whole idea behind fair use is that you’re just using a small part of a larger whole to make a point or explore a topic. Rewording or reprinting a news story or quote and simply adding a few lines of commentary won’t cut it. Use 70-30 as a guideline, but try to limit the amount of outside media you reference as much as possible.

2. Use a lot of different sources
The surest sign that your content is violating someone’s copyright is that you lean heavily on a single source or piece of media. The more outside sources you reference in a piece or link to within a post, the more obvious it is that you’re not drawing on information, images and video from a single place that could take offense.

The surest sign that your content is violating someone’s copyright is that you lean heavily on a single source or piece of media. 

3. Always give credit where credit is due
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is implying that you created something yourself. It’s true for videos, quotations and audio clips. This is why television news stories often add “Footage courtesy of…” at the bottom of smartphone video clips. It’s also why embedding YouTube videos is almost never a copyright violation – by linking back to a main site, an embedded video implicitly gives the creator credit.

4. The more links, the better
Every website wants more inbound links. In fact, they’re such an important ranking factor for search engines because they imply authority and give credit to other websites. So while sharing a quote and identifying its source is a good way to avoid trouble, an even better practice is to throw the origin a link. It’s also just an SEO best practice, because content that’s more connected with the rest of the web often performs better in search.

Want to learn more about citations on the web? Check out our resource about links for content marketing

5. When in doubt, stick to facts
Copyright law doesn’t cover facts and ideas. It only applies to the various ways they can be expressed. So a certain metaphor or way of thinking about a system might fall under copyright, but the underlying system doesn’t. It’s still a good idea to cite sources and link back to reporters and news sites where a notion originated, but the fact that the Earth orbits the sun, Barack Obama is president or Twitter is a good place to find news stories can’t be owned or disputed.

What if you do violate copyright laws:

If your blog ever does end up violating copyright law, you’re not going to be slapped with a lawsuit or indicted for intellectual property theft. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act makes it much easier for trademark holders to ask that content be taken down first instead of getting the law involved. This is one reason why stock image licensing is so popular – companies like Shutterstock bear the responsibility for establishing use rights and guarantee that your pictures aren’t going to go missing.

The simplest way to avoid violating copyright law is to convey your business’ unique position in everything you publish. Remember, at the end of the day Google values original content over generic pictures, video or copy that can be found elsewhere on the web. You might find images or sections of video that would perfectly express an idea you want to share, but you get better SEO benefits when you create something new. If your use of content is incidental and is only a minor part of your overall content, the odds are good that you’re in the clear.

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Alex ButzbachAlex Butzbach is a Marketing Writer at Brafton. He studied Communications at Boston College, and after a brief stint teaching English in Japan, he entered the world of content marketing. When he isn't writing and researching, he can be found on a bike somewhere in Metro Boston.
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