Do you need copyright permission every time you quote someone’s work?

copyright permission

By Kerry Gorgone, {grow} Contributing Columnist

Copyright and fair use reside in the grayest of gray legal areas. Which copyrighted works you can legally use (and how much you can legally use) present confusing questions, which I’ve covered previously for this blog.

Yet confusion abounds. For example, after MarketingProfs ran my post “Marketers’ 10 Most Common Copyright Questions… Answered,” I saw a Twitter mention from someone asking me to follow her on the network so she could send me a direct message. I obliged, and the following conversation ensued [username and URL redacted].

copyright permission

Note that she wanted to use my entire post (not just part of it) on her own site. Kudos to her for asking permission, but I don’t care if “a well-known marketer has allowed her to cut and paste.”  The answer is no.

If your intention is to benefit your audience by sharing helpful content created by others, introducing the topic and sharing a link would be enough. So no. You can’t copy/paste my entire post onto your site.

My answer would have been different had she asked to sample my post. For instance, if she’d wanted to introduce the piece and explain its relevance to her audience, then copy in my answer to question 1, directing people to the original post for answers 2 through 10, I’d have no issue with that.

The extremes of copyright permission

The question is one of degree—whether so much of the content is being copied as to negate the need for people to consult the original source.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are publishers and companies so risk averse that they won’t take a chance on using even tiny snippets of copyrighted works for the purpose of comment. These organizations sometimes insist that authors request permission for every quote of a copyrighted work they want to include in their own publication—even if the authors are academic scholars commenting on the original work.

Consider the case of Daniel Hallin and Charles Briggs, two UC Berkeley professors who wrote a book about media coverage of health and medicine (which obviously required quoting examples of such coverage). Their publisher required them to get formal permission from the copyright holder for any quotes longer than 50 words.

Although they endeavored to cut quotes down to that length, doing so proved impossible in some instances, and so they requested permission from The New York Times to use three snippets, totaling less than 300 words altogether. The requested licensing fee? $1,884 (and that was apparently after a 20 percent discount due to the academic nature of the use).

Somewhat tangential, but ask yourself whether their initial efforts to slash quotes down below 50 words impacted the quality of their academic analysis throughout the book. I think we all know the answer!

Marketing and copyright permission

Now carry this through to marketing. Marketers and brands use content curation to build a stronger relationship with their audiences. Should companies require marketers to obtain permission any time they share one sentence of a curated article as part of a tweet linking back to it?

That would essentially bring content curation to a full stop, and do a disservice to audiences as well as to the original content creators, who’d lose out on the social sharing.

No one posts content publicly thinking “God, I hope no one ever reads or shares this.” We publish to share our thoughts, and our thoughts can have the most impact when disseminated.

So where’s the balance? Should you get permission every time you quote someone else’s copyrighted content?

You could revisit my previous post on copyright and fair use, but let me here just give you a simple litmus test:

Is what you’re about to do going to negate the need for anyone to check out the original content source?

If yes, don’t do it (or get permission). If no, you’re probably fine.

It really is that simple.

Let’s run this through some scenarios:

  1. In the message exchange above, someone wanted to copy my entire article and paste it into her own blog as a new post. Would that negate the need for anyone to check out the original content source? Yes. So get permission or change your approach.
  2. A respected research company has come out with a new report on the state of podcasting in 2016. The stats are truly surprising, and would likely inspire your audience of marketing professionals to start podcasting. You quote one particularly surprising stat from the company’s blog post promoting the report, then encourage readers to download the entire report.

    Does this negate the need for anyone to check out the original content source? No. If anything, you’re enticing people to check out the entire report, so you should be fine.
  3. Same facts as above, only this time you upload a PDF of the entire report to your own site, being careful to link to the research company’s website so they get credit.

    Does this negate the need for anyone to check out the original source? I’d say that’s a big yes! So get permission or don’t do this.

The complexities of copyright and fair use don’t need to confound content marketers: we just need to think logically about what we use, how much of it we use, and how our use will impact the original content creator to know whether it’s likely to be legal. 

So let your approach to content curation be guided by the pride and ownership you feel over your own creative works.

Of course, nothing can prevent someone from suing you, but if you read the linked posts on copyright and fair use, then ask yourself the question posed in this article, you minimize the likelihood of a lawsuit simply because the other party would be unlikely to win.

Happy curating!

kerry gorgone

Kerry O’Shea Gorgone is a writer, lawyer, speaker and educator. She’s also Senior Program Manager, Enterprise Learning, at MarketingProfs. Kerry hosts the weekly Marketing Smarts podcast. Find Kerry on Twitter.

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Asta Adamontye

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