Foreign content from the Internet

Caution is necessary

Who publishes content online needs to consider copyrights. Tips of ECC Austria about what you can do to avoid a written warning and potentially heavy costs.

With the Internet, everybody can be an author. Some establish their own newspaper, some comment the international political affairs and some just want to share their party highlights. Whatever you want to do online: copyright also applies to the World Wide Web.

To provide current blockbusters at streaming platforms is not only "bad", it's also a criminal offence. Also the sharing of movies and music via eMule, BitTorrent and other platforms might have legal consequences.

When it comes to selfmade productions, copyrights are likely to be forgotten - the own product is upgraded with the content of strangers.

The own travel guide

An example out of practice: Anna has just returned from her dream holiday and wants to share her experiences with the world. Imagine a world without Internet: Would Anna gather photos out of travel brochures, copy them with her text and spread them around in the city? Probably not. She would be unsure if this would be ok because the photos belong to the publishing company.

Also digital images belong to someone

Today, the internet is almost taken for granted. And Anna publishes her travel tips on a weblog. Her own photographs are not enough, so she start a Google Image Search. Within minutes, Anna finds the perfect photos and puts them on her blog. That's quick and easy. The fact that digital images belong to someone is not considered by Anna - after all, she found them on Google, so that's totally different from cutting photos out of travel brochures, right?

Acquire the necessary rights to use

This illusion quickly disappears as Anna receives a written warning by a lawyer: Two of the images she used belong to a professional photographer. Anna would have been obliged to acquire the necessary rights to use from him. The lawyer demands that Anna stops publishing both photos online and that she tells him within a week which pictures of his client Anna used to publish on the Internet for how long.

Costly picture fees

Anna calls the lawyer and assures him that she regrets her mistake and that the images where only online for a few weeks. Shortly after that, she receives another letter: The lawyer quotes an overview of the regular market payment for picture utilization rights and charges her a fee of 195 Euro for using both pictures online for one month. As Anna didn't state the name of the photographer on her blog, a surcharge of 100 percent would apply. Additional to the total charge of 390 Euro, Anna should also pay the attorney's fees of 837,52 Euro to avoid being sued.

Non-commercial use does not prevent from punishment

1.200 Euro for two pictures. No counter-argument of Anna impressed the lawyer: that she's not making money with her blog, that she just publishes privately for friends and travellers, that she found the photos via Google and that it was easy to download them - according to the lawyer all these details are irrelevant.

And he is right. Anna can only hope for some goodwill as she didn't used the pictures commercially. From a legal point of view it is irrelevant if Anna made profit with her copyright violation.

What is allowed and what isn't?

The Internet is a never ending pool for pictures, music, movies and textual content. Usually, you can use this content personally without paying for it. But: This doesn't mean that you can publish the content. Just because you find it on search engines without registrating and passwords, you don't have the right to use the content for your own website, on social media platforms, on invitations or printed products.

In general, photographer is holder of right

The person who took the photo holds the copyright. He can grant somebody the right to use the photos (e.g. an agency like Getty Images). Whenever you want to use the work of someone else, you need to acquire the necessary rights. For editing a picture, an additional right is needed - editing is not included in the right to use!

Indication of all sources is not sufficient

A common mistake: "If I specify the source, publishing is allowed." If you use foreign content instead of your own and don't have the right to use and publish, source indication is not sufficient. Don't jump to the conclusion that this behaviour is ok just because "everyone does it".

Infringements are not always immediately dedected or punished. However, you are taking a risk when you don't acquire the necessary rights, for example:

  • by posting forein content in a forum or blog (to link to it is usually allowed)
  • by using foreign pictures as your profil photo on facebook
  • by using music for your YouTube videos
  • or by citing a famous author on your homepage (if the author is not dead for at least 70 years)

Found quickly, paid costly

To detect copyright violations in the World Wide Web is not as difficult as it might sound. Copyright holders have a lot of technical possibilities these days. For example, search robots can search for digital waterprints in pictures and analyse the outcome fully automatically.

Ignorance is no defence

In case of infringement, the copyright holder is entitled to demand the removal of the content and the payment of an appropriate usage fee. This also applies if the wrongdoer didn't know that he was violating copyrights.

High damage payments

Respective of meaning and content as well as duration and extent of the publication, these usage fees can become severe. If the copyright holder can prove that the wrongdoer should have recognised his violation, he can also charge twice the fee as damages. Even if the usage fees are not so high, the lawyer's fees might be punishment enough.

It's important to ask for authorisation

Always check in advance if you can find any license information or conditions applicable to the use of images. If you don't find such information, you need to ask the website provider. This also applies to photos which were published by other "private persons" on platforms like Flickr or Facebook. On Flickr, the licence information is right next to the photo description.

Be careful - even with your own pictures 

Even if you publish your own photos, you need to be careful! If you took photos of great architecture during your vacation, you can publish those because of the principle "freedom of streetscape". Works of visual art, like architecture, which were made with the purpose of showing them at a public space constantly are free to being imaged. This does not apply to paintings: If the artist is alive or died less than 70 years ago, you need to get the right to duplicate, even if the painting is in a public galery.

Common mistakes

  • "Indication of all sources is sufficient": No, it doesn't entitle you to use foreign content.
  • "It has to be legal because everyone's doing it": No, there's a big difference between what is common and what is legal.
  • "Nobody will find out": The truth is: The risk gets higher because the sensibility for the topic is rising, the technical possibilities get better and the legal prosecution of copyright infringement has become a business field for specialised lawyers.

What to do if a letter from the lawyer arrives?

If you get a written warning, the following steps are important:

  • Don't ignore it as you might get sued.
  • Check the given deadline and eventually ask for extension.
  • Don't sign a letter of commitment without examinating the facts.
  • If the accusation is unjustified, argue against it with evidence.
  • If the accusation is correct, you may be able to arrange a reduction of the requested fees.
  • If the written warning comes from a German lawyer, you can try to refer to the German special rule that limitates the costs of the warning regarding copyright violations (§ 97 a).

Last updated on 27.03.2014

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