≡ Menu

Fair Use & Other Copyright Issues On The Web – Ask Anne The Pro Writer

freelance writingHi Anne,

How do you handle using written information that’s found on web sites?

For example, a local wellness center has a description of a workshop that they offer in Breathwork.  The description is general.

From my research, it seems that the description is not that unique (other centers/facilitators use something similar to it.)

One of my sources, has told me I’m free to use information on the web site/flyer for the workshop.  I could have her read it to me, I suppose.  I guess it’s no different than any other written poster or flyer.

But how do I give it credit in the article? Can I quote it?  Can I use it, word for word, without quoting it?



Hi Dave,

The notion that “information wants to be free” has led to a lot of confusion on the web.

Probably first said by Futurist Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog and The Well, he also said at the same conference “information wants to be expensive.” You don’t hear that quote very often.

In the first case he was talking about how cheaply information can be disseminated through the web; in the second he was talking about how expensive it can be to create information.

When you read the information about breath work on a particular site you’re not paying for the privilege of reading that information – that’s the free part of information on the ‘net.

However, just because the web allows you to read information for free does NOT mean you are allowed to copy it.

It’s just like a newspaper or a magazine. If you picked up a magazine at a doctor’s office you could read the articles without paying for a subscription, but the articles there are specifically or implicitly copyrighted. The same thing is true if the magazine is distributed for free – it’s still copyrighted.

So are the articles here and on any web site. Unless the author of the site gives you specific permission to copy from the site you can’t do so legally.

Or almost.The almost is what’s known as “the doctrine of fair use.” In the United States, people are allowed limited and “fair” use of a work without permission from the author or creator.

Wikipedia uses the example of when toy manufacturer Mattel  lost it’s copyright infringement suit against artist Tom Forsythe who used photographs of Barbie dolls in his work.

You can also read about fair use at copyright.gov, although I find it impossible really feel I  understand what’s written there.

A more typical example are the small snippets of copyrighted text reviewers use when reviewing books and other works. Most of the time those snippets are used without permission and considered fair use.

It doesn’t matter that the description is not, in your judgement, unique; you can’t use it without permission.

It would seem your choices are:

  • To get permission – probably not worth the effort – or maybe it is. I don’t know what you’re trying to get done.
  • To quote a sentence or so (one of the problems with the fair use doctrine is that how much or how little is not specified) and give credit to the site or author.
  • To totally rewrite the information making it your own and also subject to an automatic copyright when you publish it.

I sometimes will quote a passage of something, but I always make it clear I’m quoting and what exactly I’m quoting from. If it’s a website I link because I know linking is not only the nice thing to do, it also helps that site build traffic.

Now, I’m not a lawyer, thank goodness. There are probably lawyers who read this blog. And other folks who have had a lot of experience with this issue may want to point out what I’ve left out or what I’ve gotten confused about.

By all means, feel free to leave a comment.

Do you have a question about freelance writing? Ask Anne, The Writing Pro – that’s me 😉 Ask in the comments or send an email and put Q&A in the subject line so I can sort it out from spam and I’ll do my best. Meanwhile, you’ll find some Q&A’s here: Ask Anne, The Pro Writer


Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Rachel

    Dear Anne, I wonder if you can help me. My husband and I have been making stop motion animations. We would like to put them up on the internet. The ideas and music are all original, but we have used well known toys (for example a figurine of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, some well known wrestler figurines) What are the copyright issues regarding this usage?
    Hope to hear back soon

  • Hi Anne:

    Thanks for the link. I ended up doing a post on this topic yesterday as I had multiple clients with this misconception. I ended up speaking to one yesterday who is adjusting their post–yay!!

    I also gave you a shout-out in appreciation of all the great information you share. Thanks, Anne!
    .-= Cathy Miller´s last blog ..3 of the Biggest Copyright Misconceptions in Business Blogs =-.

  • P.S. This was the response I got from one client–

    I’ve removed the actual article for now and just am providing a link. However, from the research I have done, it states that as long as you attribute an article to its author and publication, it’s fair game to repost without permission.
    .-= Cathy Miller´s last blog ..Is Medical Ghostwriting Harmful? =-.

  • I have run into this twice in the last month with clients – they copy whole articles or posts from another site, keeping the name and bylines and thinking that was okay.

    Just this morning, I asked my client if they got permission and copied & pasted this portion of the Copyright notice from which they copied the post:

    Except as provided below without the prior written consent of XYZ, you agree not to:
    Store, post or otherwise archive the articles or other materials from XYZ.com on a personal computer, local or wide area networks, online services, electronic bulletin boards or forums, World Wide Web sites or any other server that is Internet-enabled

    Now, is it ust me or isn’t that pretty clear that they don’t want you copying and pasting their post on your post–EVEn with the author’s byline and the magazine’s name?

    In both cases, my clients basically have blown off my advice.
    .-= Cathy Miller´s last blog ..Is Medical Ghostwriting Harmful? =-.

    • Anne

      Cathy, it’s clear. There is still the whole myth about info on the net being free… and many think that means free to use anyway they want.

      I’ve also found that it’s not unusual for clients to blow off some of my advice.

  • Thanks Anne!

    I will immediately mend my ignorant ways. I’m so glad I asked.
    .-= Angie´s last blog ..Hello world! =-.

    • Anne

      Just remember Angie, that none of us were born knowing this stuff… it’s a constant learning process. Asking questions, like you did, is the best way to find out.

  • Hi Anne,

    I sometimes use pictures or art found on the web to enhance some of my short stories. I always list where I found it, who the owner is and any other copyright info that is listed with the picture.

    Someone told me that copyrights involved in using pictures and art is very different than using verbiage. I have checked out the copyright.gov site but they aren’t specific about usage of pictures and art.

    So my questions are:

    – Do the pictures and art also fall under the Free Usage rules?
    – Are copyright rules the same for pictures and art as they are for verbiage?
    – Is it enough to just reference the website as you did above because that is much easier than what I have been doing?

    • Anne

      No, Angie, the rules aren’t the same. You need to get specific permission to use each photo or whatever. I use http://www.sxc.hu/ There they allow artists to upload photos mostly and choose what kind of a licence to offer. Many require no more than posting the site as I do, some require naming the artist and others cost.

      But unless the artist says you can use it one way or another you can’t.

  • That seems like such a gray area but you explained it very well. I guess it just varies from different situations.
    .-= Christopher´s last blog ..Call Me Greedy If You Must =-.

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Translate »