All Is Not Fair

Brush up on copyright law to avoid conflict

In June, a little-known blog got an unsettling letter from the Associated Press, the country’s foremost news wire service. The AP, whose stories are printed in newspapers nationwide, ordered the blog to remove all posts that quoted its stories — and indicated that more sites might receive such notices. The story set the blogosphere buzzing, and within hours, the AP had softened its attack, but the surrounding issues linger. As a recent article in Business Week notes, media organizations are increasingly employing content recognition software to crawl the Web round-the-clock looking for improper use of their copyrighted content. And as the AP incident illustrates, these days you don't have to be one of the most heavily trafficked sites to get caught using something without permission.

With that in mind, it's a good time to familiarize yourself and your staff with the dos and don'ts of “fair use,” the governing principle of this aspect of copyright law. Over time, and through numerous court decisions, “fair use” has come to mean that you can excerpt on a limited basis from copyrighted materials for the purpose of commenting on them, criticizing them, reporting the news, or teaching and scholarship. While no specific guidelines are given to dictate how much of an article can be excerpted, the courts will generally expect you to use them as judiciously as possible.

So what does that mean for your website, blog or publication? Say you stumble upon a thought-provoking column on Slate.com that you think your audience would benefit from reading. A common misconception is that you can excerpt some or all of the article as long as you provide the information about where it's from and who wrote it. In fact, that is a violation of copyright law, which is very clear that disclosure is not a substitute for permission.

The safest thing you can do in this scenario is to contact the author and ask for permission to reprint or excerpt the article. You might be surprised how enthusiastic the writer is — most are thrilled to have their work reach a wider audience.

Even better, consider using the article as a jumping-off point for your own take on the issue. Do some research and find out what others are saying on the topic, then construct your own argument, quoting from source material sparingly. Though the AP eventually backed off its original threat to bloggers, its contention that it would seek the removal of content “more reproduction than reference” is a good guideline. Are you merely using the excerpts of the article to give context to your own thought, or are you veering too close to simply repeating it? Remember, your audience is coming to you because they want to know what you have to say.