Copyright protection gives the owners or creators of certain items full rights to their usage. When an item is copyrighted, there are typically limits on its distribution, copying and use to make a profit. Copyrighted photos, for example, cannot be used on a website without the permission of the copyright holder. Copyright protection does not limit private, personal use such as hanging a picture on a wall. Failure to obtain permission from a copyright holder before using a copyrighted object can subject you to fines, civil damages and attorney's fees. Some copyright violations also result in criminal penalties.
When in doubt about the use of a copyrighted objects, it's best to err on the side of caution and obtain permission from the copyright holder. Using a copyrighted photo on a not-for-profit website for even a single day, for example, can subject you to penalties. Personal use, such as playing a copyrighted song for a friend or hanging copyrighted artwork in a classroom, is typically allowable under copyright laws.
Determining Copyright Holder
To obtain permission to use a copyrighted object, you must first determine the copyright holder. The entity with rights to an item is not always the entity that created it. If the item has a copyright symbol, the copyright owner will often be listed next to it. Books are typically copyrighted by the publisher and music is typically copyrighted by the recording agency. Whenever there is a copyright symbol with a name associated, contact this person. If you're not sure who to contact, try contacting the webmaster or the creator of the item, who will typically be able to tell you who owns the copyright.
Obtaining Written Permission
To obtain permission to use a copyrighted item, you must be explicitly clear about how you intend to use the item. If, for example, you want to show a sports event to a group of people, provide the location, the anticipated number of attendees and any information about whether or not you intend to charge an entry fee. Send this information to the copyright holder and ask for its written permission to use the item. You then must follow the explicit dictates of the written permission. If you have permission, for example, to use an item in a presentation, this does not mean you also have permission to make copies of the item.
Some businesses charge licensing fees for the use of copyrighted objects. You may be able to obtain a license to use the copyrighted item in a specific context. For example, photography clearinghouses often offer licenses that allow people to use photos on websites, and music brokerage firms may offer licenses to allow copyrighted music to be played in clubs or bars. Licenses are often required for commercial use, and failure to pay a licensing fee -- even if you have permission to use the item -- can result in lawsuits for copyright violation.
Using Copyrighted Objects
When you've received permission to use a copyrighted object, the copyright holder still owns all copyrights. This means you cannot say that you created the item or own it. Your use agreement with the copyright owner may require you to provide it with credit for the item or to list its creator. You must honor the terms of the use agreement to avoid penalties.