Can I use that? A legal primer for journalists

Photo: AP

As a media law scholar and practicing media lawyer, I field all manner of questions every week—from students, journalists, editors, and others. Whether I’m speaking generally to a non-client or giving specific legal advice to a client, I’ve noticed that the questions fall into three broad categories:

Can I use that?

Can I say that?

Can I do that?

Within each category, some issues come up more than others. They’re the greatest hits, so to speak, and I’m going to begin sampling that album with you here—starting with the category Can I use that? Future stories will explore the other two categories. Keep in mind that I’m a lawyer, not your lawyer (unless I actually am your lawyer), and these comments shouldn’t be construed as legal advice.

How to obtain a copyright

Can I use that? questions are typically copyright questions. First, freelancers want to know how to obtain a copyright in something they created. This is sort of the inverse of Can I use that? The person wants to know how to control the way others use her work. So, assuming a work is copyrightable in the first place (some things, like facts and short phrases, are not), it’s copyrighted upon creation.

Generally, the copyright is owned by whoever created the work. But if it’s created in the course of employment, it’s usually considered a “work for hire” and owned by the employer. The New York Times, for example, owns the copyright in articles written by its employees. Among freelancers, copyright ownership depends on the rights articulated in their contracts. It’s not ​uncommon for freelancers and their publications to share copyrights in some way.

Now, even though a work is copyrighted upon creation, it’s prudent for the owner to register the work with the US Copyright Office. Registration puts the world on notice of the copyright, and allows the owner to enforce the right in court. Plus, the federal copyright statute entitles the owner to statutory damages if she registers the work before infringement or within three months of the work’s publication. That’s helpful because it means the owner doesn’t have to prove actual losses in an enforcement ​suit.

And, although this isn’t required to obtain a copyright, I usually advise my clients—especially the photojournalists—to place a copyright notice on each of their works. To be most effective, it should include the owner’s name, the year the work was created, and the copyright symbol. Why do I give that advice? If the client needs to enforce her copyright in court, notice takes away the defendant’s ability to claim that he innocently infringed, a defense that can ​mitigate the owner’s damages.

Fair use

Lots of people ask me about fair use, the doctrine that allows you to use a copyrighted work without permission. First, understand that the goal of copyright law is not only to protect the rights of people who create content but also “to promote the progress of science and useful arts,” according to the Constitution. Allowing creators to enforce their copyrights in all cases would frustrate the latter, so the courts and Congress adopted the fair use doctrine to allow uses of copyrighted works that would benefit society.

I spend my time in this area disabusing people of misconceptions—that you can sample up to 10 seconds of an audio recording, or copy up to three paragraphs of a book, or use whatever you want as long as it’s newsworthy or included in a news report. In reality, there are no such bright-line rules. To determine whether a use is fair, a court considers four factors.

The first is the purpose and character of the use (chiefly whether it’s for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, or research, all of which favor fair use). The second is the nature of the copyrighted work itself (whether, say, it was unpublished, which is entitled to greater protection). The third is the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the work as a whole (the more of the original work used, the more likely it’s an infringement). And the fourth is the effect of the use on the market for, or value of, the copyrighted work (uses that supplant the original work in the marketplace are unlikely to be fair).

No single factor is determinative, and notably the fact that something is newsworthy, or used in a news report, does not automatically make its use fair. That’s probably where I spend the most time educating people. Using a ​copyrighted ​work for a news report will be considered as part of factor one, but that does not end the analysis—the court will go on to consider the other factors, and if they don’t favor fair use, then your use won’t be protected.

Linking and embedding

The last major Can I use that? issue is linking. As we surf the Web, we rely greatly on links to navigate from page to page—to look up related content. And news organizations increasingly are using links to provide access to their source material. But what if you post something that links to copyrighted or infringing content? Are you liable under prevailing copyright rules?

Different types of linking present different copyright issues, and the law is not entirely settled here—so I’ll hit the two most important points that (for the most part) are settled. First, “deep linking” is what most of us think of when we think of linking. It means placing a link on your site that leads to a page on another site. Doing that, generally, does not constitute copyright infringement—even if the other site is hosting copyrighted or infringing content​.

Second, “inline linking” is what most of us call embedding. It means placing a line of HTML code in your site so it displays content directly from another site (e.g., embedding a tweet in a news story). That does not, generally, infringe any​ copyright because no copy of the embedded content has been made—the inline link is simply a piece of code that represents the content as it exists on the originating site. Moreover, most third-party platforms, like Twitter, include in their terms of service a provision that says the user permits others to embed his or her content.

Which raises a related issue: Embedding copyrighted content may be okay, but screenshotting it and posting the screenshot is not. That’s basically the electronic equivalent of making a copy of the work, putting it squarely in the crosshairs of copyright law. So, if you find content on social media and want to use it (e.g., in an online news story), embedding is the safest way to do it—not screenshotting.

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Stay tuned for future stories that will explore the other two categories: Can I say that? and Can I do that? The former will focus on libel law and news reports that might harm a person’s reputation, while the latter will focus on recording phone calls and conversations, as well as recording police officers and public officials.

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Jonathan Peters is CJR's press freedom correspondent. An attorney, he is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, where he teaches and researches media law and policy, with an affiliate research position exploring big data and Internet governance in the KU Information & Telecommunication Technology Center. Peters has blogged on free expression for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, and he has written for Esquire, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Slate, The Nation, Wired, and PBS. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanwpeters.