As a technical writer, I develop content for the applications I’m supporting. Often that includes designing content, images, and multi-media to provide the best user experience possible. As content developers, however, we have a responsibility (both legal and moral) to ensure that the content we are using is being used properly and legally.
We live in a world with lots of avenues to get content for our projects. Several websites specialize in searching for media that you can download and use in your product. Just because you can find it, however, does not mean you can use it. There are legal requirements that you need to be aware of when you are using content created by somebody else.
For example, I can’t just do a Google image search and find any image and put it directly into my project. The person who created that image has copyright protection on that content. You can not use it unless you get a license to use it from the copyright holder.
When you are working on a project for personal use, you probably don’t have to be too worried about these restrictions. However, when you are doing work that will be used in any kind of professional setting or commercial setting, you have to be very careful how you use others’ intellectual property.
Take, for example, the case of NBC currently in the news. NBC is being sued for using somebody else’s intellectual property, without properly licensing it. A very similar thing happened at a company where I used to work. The company had been purchased by a larger entity, and was going through a re-branding. The new branding used a font that the company hadn’t licensed properly. When I read the license agreement and realized we were infringing on somebody’s IP rights, I escalated to the management, who had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to use the fonts the way they were planning to. However, paying those tens of thousands of dollars up front saved them potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in the lawsuit that might come from using the fonts illegally.
Since the work you create represents the company you work for (or your own company, if you are an contractor), you really need to pay attention to intellectual property issues to protect your company from being held liable for infringement.
Here are some tips for using intellectual property properly:
- When you use somebody’s material, be sure you get written permission to use it, including exactly how it will be used. If you are going to use it for commercial purposes, be sure that it is properly stated.
- Don’t just assume that people put the content on the Internet so it can be used.
- If you purchase stock photography, make sure you abide by the terms of the license agreement. Generally, you don’t purchase unlimited rights; normally your license restricts how the property can be used (if it can be downloaded, for example; or if it can be used on a T-shirt or mug).
- If you create something from scratch while at work, that work belongs to your employer. You can use that in your work product in any way you want. If you make a derivative work, you have to be sure you are licensed to do so.
- “Fair use” is a defense in court; it is not a legal protection, per se. Be very careful about saying “I can use this, because it is ‘fair use.'” You don’t want to get sued to prove that it is, in fact, fair use. When in doubt, don’t do it.
- Track your IP use. Many licenses to use IP include time restrictions; after a certain date you have to re-pay to continue to use the image. Be sure your organization is in compliance with these rules.
- When you use somebody else’s work, be sure you give proper attribution. In many cases it is required. In other cases, it is just the morally right thing to do.
A special note about Creative Commons License
There are lots of images available out there under a Creative Commons license. There are several forms of this license, but you need to be very careful if you use Creative Commons-licensed material because most Creative Commons licenses require “share-alike.” That means that if you use an image licensed with a Creative Commons license, your entire project must also be licensed under the same license.
That means if you are creating a help system that includes a single Creative Commons Share Alike image, then your entire help system may also be required to be licensed under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.
Watching out for others’ IP rights is good for the community. It means you can also expect your IP rights to be respected. It is the responsible thing for us to do, and as writers, we owe it to ourselves, our employers, and our community to make sure we are in compliance with intellectual property requirements.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and this should not be considered legal advice. If you have questions about intellectual property issues, please seek the advice of an IP attorney licensed to practice in your locality.