Insurance · 16 January 2017

A guide to using other peoples’ intellectual property

Intellectual property
If you use materials without permission and get caught, you could be guilty of copyright infringement and could owe compensation

For the final article in his series on understanding intellectual property, solicitor David Walker provides small business owners with a guide to using the intellectual property of other people.

My previous articles in this series have focused on your intellectual property. However, it’s just as important to be aware of other people’s intellectual property so that you don’t inadvertently infringe on their rights.

Imagine a situation we’ve all been in. We’re writing a blog for our company website, or preparing a sales presentation and it needs more impact. Perhaps an image, an animated GIF or some music would really drive your message home.

What do we do?

Most people will turn to Google and a quick search will usually uncover just what you’re looking for. But are you free to use it?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear cut.

Let’s use an image you have found as an example, but the same legal principles will apply to music, videos or any other form creative work because they are all protected by copyright laws.

This means that their owner can, in most situations, prevent you from copying, editing or using them without their permission.

In this example, I’m assuming that the blog or presentation is considered as business use, because there are some exceptions if you’re using these materials for you own personal use – for educational purposes or news reporting – but I’m not going to go into details of these here.

The first thing you need to do is find out who owns the image and how old it is. Age is important because copyright protection doesn’t last forever. In the UK, copyright protection lasts for the life of the creator plus seventy years from the end of the year in which they died.

So, if the image is older than this, the copyright laws protecting it will have expired and you will probably be free to use it (if, however, it is an image of a real person, i.e. not a sketch of an imaginary person, you still need to be careful as there may be other rights preventing you from using it – see further below).

If the copyright is still valid, you need the owner’s permission to use the image and it’s up to them whether or not they grant it. They can also set the terms of use, for example the fee you must pay them for their consent.

If you can’t find the owner and you’re unsure of the age of the image, it’s safest not to use it and instead go to a library of stock images. They will be very clear on their licence terms and explain what you can and can’t do with the image and the fee you will have to pay to use it.

If the image you have chosen is of a real person, perhaps a celebrity, you will need their permission as well as the permission of the copyright owner before you use it.

This is especially important if you’re using the image to promote your products and services, because you mustn’t give the false impression that they are endorsing them. This also applies to dead celebrities where their estate may continue to have rights in their image or have protected it in some way, for example by registering it as a trade mark.

This is another advantage of using stock image libraries. They will usually have obtained an “image release” which means the person in the photo has given their consent for their image to be used.

Now, I fully accept that these days there seems to be far more “sharing” of copyright materials than ever before. And most people seem to get away with it. However, that doesn’t make it legal.

If you use these materials without permission and get caught, you could be guilty of copyright infringement. The owner can then claim compensation from you for your unauthorised use of the image. Not only can this be costly, it can be hugely embarrassing if you include these images in work you have produced for a client and they get caught.

So, my final piece of advice is to ensure all of your staff know exactly what they can and cannot do when it comes to using images or other materials they find on-line.

As always, if you have any questions on the issues raised in this article or any other article in this series please feel free to get in touch at editors@businessadvice.co.uk.

Catch up on the rest of David Walker’s intellectual property series:

  1. Intellectual property – How to protect the hidden assets in your business
  2. Making money from intellectual property
  3. How to defend intellectual property rights as a small business owner

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

David Walker is the founder of Grid Law, a firm which first targeted the motorsport industry – advising on sponsorship deals, new contracts and building of personal brands. He has now expanded his remit to include entrepreneurs, aiding with contract law, dispute resolution and protecting and defending intellectual property rights.

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