Disclaimer: This guide is written from practical experience on magazines and websites so if you really need to be sure about anything specific, consult a legal expert. I also haven’t yet researched the implications of the Digital Economy Bill, but this shouldn’t change the fundamental principals of copyright, just make you more likely to be punish’d in terrible ways if you get it wrong. Copyright law also varies in different countries, which creates its own complications online but for the purposes of this we’re taking UK law as a guide. If any of this article starts to remind you of the very annoying “You wouldn’t steal a car” advert, I apologise now.

As more of us become content creators and publishers, it is worth having a basic knowledge of copyright. The British Library IP department is very useful to get more detailed information and I highly recommend their free workshops. This guide (PDF) by the IPO is also more extensive than the information given here. Wikipedia also has detailed information and it is also a very big live setting where you can see how people from all over the world are interpreting copyright law.

For this article, I’m trying to pick up the key things that a hyperlocal blogger might need to know.

The tweetable summary is this: if you don’t have permission to use it, don’t… unless you have a good reason.


Copyright applies to any piece of creative work that is published and it is the automatic right of the creator – that means you if you’ve written articles or taken photos and put them online. You don’t need to apply for copyright; the old suggestion of posting your printed work to yourself is not a way of ‘creating’ copyright but simply ensuring there is evidence that you created the work first.  Copyright isn’t just about publishing for money but simply means you have the right to say what happens to your work – that might mean charging for its use, signing away the rights to someone else or allowing it to be used freely. Copyright may be held by an employer if it is produced within your job but this depends on your contract.

Copyright applies on many different levels and a single piece of content can sometimes have several copyright holders. People can assert copyright to what they say (if recorded) and write, although you also have the right to quote them, see below. A piece of art in a photograph is also covered by copyright which is why its creator has the right to say it can’t be photographed, but in public places this does not apply. People also have rights over their own image in publication (privacy laws also apply here), but again this does not apply in public places (I’m assuming here that your photographic target is not a very well-known celebrity on a beach).

Publishers are the people reproducing content,  that means you if you are editing a community blog. While you can assume that your contributors have given you a license to use your work, you have no right to pass that permission onto someone else.

Copyright in the traditional “All rights reserved” sense is very strict. Many shops and libraries will not photocopy pages of published books or music. As the web makes it easier to share content, it is becoming less obvious to publishers and creators how they can protect work, but many are finding a happy balance that enables them to share their work while still making a living. Many more people too are enjoying publishing their work under Creative Commons licenses, where permission to reproduce is given under different conditions. A further area you might need to know about is Crown Copyright which covers government-produced materials.

In many cases, blogs publish under Creative Commons licenses which mean the work on them can be reproduced, but the owner has the right to withdraw that at any time. It is worth looking at how Wikipedia handle the contributions of thousands of people in their Terms if you want to see how this works in practice.

Important note: many bloggers are using third-party tools and servers to host their sites. You should be aware that by signing up to most of these you grant the provider (example from a “world-wide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, modify, adapt and publish the Content solely for the purpose of displaying, distributing and promoting your blog“. Google, which includes Blogspot, and Yahoo, which includes Flickr, have broadly similar agreements but in those cases they can also be used to promote the wider services (for example, a picture from your Flickr account could be used in an article about Flickr). Read these and don’t upload material if you’re not happy with granting this right to your hosts.

As a publisher or other creator of content, there are some ways to use other people’s work without permission but all of them carry quite a lot of room for debate (these are mostly my interpretations with some quotes from the British library guide):

– fair use/fair dealing: snippets and quotes “for critique or review, with acknowledgement of the source”. This is part of our right to free speech and should cover things like satirical Youtube mashups of politicians. Bear in mind though that a very small amount of poetry or music can still be substantial enough to be covered by copyright. Partial quoting that changes the meaning of what someone meant can be considered defamatory – do some more reading in this area if you are entering this sort of territory.

– new work: if you are using something with the right license, under the argument of fair use above or if it is out of copyright, and you have changed the nature of it work so much that it can be considered a new piece of work, you then own the copyright. This is called a derivative work and is not without its own complications (more information).

– educational use: “Limited copying for non-commercial research or private study” and “Reproducing an artistic work by hand as a class assignment in an educational establishment”. Does this include limited sharing for learning purposes using email or a private webpage? And what about copying an image then putting a Twitpic of it online? I’m not sure.

Perhaps the simplest way to view copyright is that it is about courtesy and fairness. If somebody has clearly asserted that they do not want their work reproduced, or that they want paying for every use of their work, that is their right. An absence of any such assertion does not give you the right to assume they’re OK with it. And while asking permission and waiting for a response can be far more time consuming than our impatient daily blogging hands are comfortable with (a *letter*? Are you *serious*) if you can’t afford for the creator to come back and say they will want paying, don’t publish.

How do I know if something is in copyright?

Copyright varies with format and by country and the basic rule given by the British Library is up to 70 years after the author’s death. This PDF from the Intellectual Property Office gives more advice.

What about linking and sharing images?

As you might expect, the web community is rather more relaxed than print, and it is also easier to change content or take something off when it is drawn to your attention. If depends on the context – I have used images from an article where someone is sharing knowledge through graphics, but probably wouldn’t embed a professional-quality photo on Flickr. If using a quote or image from another blog post, I clearly acknowledge it and link back to it without necessarily asking for permission – most blogs will have the Pingback facility that enables them to see when someone has linked to them and they will check it out for themselves. It is rather like sharing a video or image on Facebook: as long as people can get to the source and you are not passing it off as your own work, it should be considered fair to use it. Again, if someone contacts you to say they don’t want it used anywhere else, take it down (unless you want to make an argument of ‘fair use’).

I have heard of sites that forbid links to them in their legal terms, but don’t see how this is practical to insist upon. If they ask, you can decide whether to argue or just take the link off your site.

Asking permission

Getting in touch with people online to ask for permission to use their work is generally a good way of widening your audience and developing new contributor bases. If people can see you’re not making a profit, I’ve nearly always found they’re happy to help.

Offline, say if you wanted to use a poem or a song, getting in touch is a bit harder, but the best place to start is through the publisher which you can find if the book is listed on Amazon. You could telephone them initially (I know, but it’s more likely to get you an answer than an email) and ask what the best way to make a request is, they might suggest the creator’s agent instead. Explain how you want to use the work, who you are and what sort of audience the work is likely to reach. If you don’t publish your site to make a profit or if it is a site for a community group, say so. You might want to propose that the work will only appear for a fixed term. With that, the copyright-holder should be able to respond and, hopefully, they might offer you a license free of charge (sometimes they will make a nominal charge) to use the work under certain conditions, for example a line saying “Used by kind permission of the author, all rights reserved”. You should follow these conditions or a bill might follow.

Copyright applies inside buildings and privately-owned spaces so you should ask permission from the owner or whoever handles their copyright, for example in the case of football grounds this is the Football League. If you were hoping to go along to matches and take photos for your blog, my advice from experience is don’t get your hopes up.

Free sources of images

There is no need to take copyrighted material without permission when there is so much free material out there. Flickr lets you search for all the Creative Commons images – over 19 million of which have an Attribution license – and stock.xchng has over 392,000 images. Ikon Archive also has very professional sets of icons and clip art (who doesn’t sometimes need a set of archaeological images?).

On all these sites, it is good practice if possible to send a message to the creator through their profile and thank them, including a link to the use of their work, if they are building up a profile it will be useful. Again, include a credit and link to their profile on your site.

warm and fuzzy.egg by Redstar on Aviary
Warm and fuzzy.egg by Redstar on Aviary – A nice example of what happens when people pool their talents.

Hopefully this covers most of the basic aspects of copyright you are likely to encounter as a hyperlocal blogger, but if there is anything you are unsure about, please leave a comment.

That disclaimer again: This is just a starting point into quite a complex subject. If you need specific advice on legal matters, please seek it from an expert.