While the internet, and the social media it has spawned, may be new and rapidly evolving, the laws that apply to what we do there are old and generally slow to evolve. Copyright is at the top of that stack of old laws, though, incredibly, Cooks Source based its old-media print magazine, protected by copyright, on the erroneous position that copyright doesn't apply to material on the web.
The story begins when Cooks Source published an article about apple pies throughout history, an article it credited to author Monica Gaudio. The problem is Cook Source took the article from Ms. Gaudio’s blog without her permission. After Ms. Gaudio discovered this and complained to the magazine, she received a note from its editor stating in part (emphasis added):
But honestly Monica, the web is considered "public domain" and you should be happy we just didn't "lift" your whole article and put someone else's name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally.I’m not going to dump on Cooks Source for what it did, though many, many have in what is now my new example of the internet’s swift, terrible, and sometimes hypocritical justice. The post The Day the Internet Threw a Righteous Hissyfit About Copyright and Pie, on the NPR Monkey See blog, drew me to this story, and I recommend it for those wanting more pie.
I'm not going to call out Cooks Source because many other businesses, perhaps even yours, do the same thing, though perhaps not so flagrantly. They do it whenever they grab a photo, a video, a song, or some text from one site and post it on another.
It’s easy to do and everyone does it (isn’t that the essence of Cooks Source response?), but that doesn’t make it right.
Sometimes, material on the web may actually be “public domain,” but most likely the material is subject to legal protection. Sharing information and building connections are the reasons the social media have enjoyed tremendous growth, so some authors give advance permission to copy and re-post material (like I do--see the Creative Commons license at the bottom of the page), so long as the work is attributed to the author, and, umm, no matter how badly it needs editing, it is unchanged.
Then there is the Fair Use doctrine, which is a part of copyright law that requires changing or transforming copyrighted materials, such as in commentary, criticism, or parody. Unfortunately, the line between what is and what is not “fair use” is not easily drawn, and, as such, is not a fight most businesses should want to pick other than in defense of core part of the business. Marketing by social media is not core business for any of my clients.
So what should your business do if it wants to copy material from the internet, for use in social media or otherwise? Don’t—instead create your own original work, it’s more interesting and valuable to your reader (although ownership of original work can hinge on whether an employee or independent contractor created it for you—that’s the Work-for-Hire doctrine, which will have to be the subject of a future post). If you insist on using another’s photos, songs, videos or text (other than limited quotations), check the copyright and ask for consent when required. It's legal and easy as pie.