The digital age has greatly enhanced information flows, but at a cost. It is now easier than ever to plagiarize or use content without permission. Fortunately, the landscape of copyright protection is starting to shift toward respect for content creators, partly thanks to Google. The search giant recently announced on its official blog that it would move to aggressively punish copyright infringement. Bloggers and others should take note.
But what is copyright infringement? Here we will focus on the domains of blogging and electronic publishing. And, by way of background, I taught in a university setting for over a decade. Over that time period, copyright law was one of most challenging topics to discuss with students.
In order to grasp the basics of copyright law, you need to address two questions: 1) For what purpose is another author’s content used? 2) What rights has the copyright holder reserved?
In the educational context, limited amounts of works (e.g. a chapter of a book, or no more than 10 percent of a published work) may be reproduced without permission. This reproduced material, however, cannot be publicly disseminated on the Web, nor may it be used in a commercial context. Reproduction along these lines is considered “fair use” in the context of learning and education.
Points of confusion for many bloggers are the issues of attribution and the amount of material that may be republished without permission. Absent permission from the copyright holder – either specifically, or through a general statement like a Creative Commons license – it is not lawful to republish large amounts of a work. If it is unclear what rights an author has reserved, bloggers should assume that all rights have been reserved. Though there is some debate about how much is too much, a good rule of thumb is 50-100 words for a piece of writing. Under United States copyright law – and that of most countries – it is permissible to quote small portions of works for the purposes of criticism and public debate. Even if a blogger provides attribution (i.e. cites) the author(s) of a written work, it is copyright infringement to post more than a small excerpt without permission.
So, that brings us to Google’s recent announcement. As the Google blog post states, “. . . we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site. Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results.” Wow, that is a penalty with real significance. Given the search engine’s dominance, and given the exponential increase in copyright infringement notices reported to Google, content thieves – including unscrupulous bloggers – have been served notice. That is a huge victory for the important institution of intellectual property rights.
Hat tip: Shahzad Saeed’s guest post on ProBlogger