Is content curation fair use under copyright law?

Individuals reposting content from other websites on via Facebook, Twitter or other social media is so common today that it’s hardly every questioned whether or not these actions infringe on an original author’s, photographer’s or artist’s copyright. In fact, businesses love it when consumers repost their content — this is the kind of word-of-mouth advertising that’s worth its weight in gold. But in fact, copyright laws, if interpreted in the strictest sense, might appear to outlaw many of these content sharing practices. And it gets a lot murkier when businesses share others individuals’ or businesses’ content.

How do businesses walk the line between being legally correct — respecting the intellectual property rights of others — while still, when appropriate, sharing others’ content on their own websites, blogs or social media channels?The U.S. copyright laws allow for what is called “Fair Use.” Understanding how Fair Use applies can be confusing, to say the least.

featured-image-copyrightThe practice of pulling content from a variety of sources and reposting it in some form that is helpful and relevant to your audience is sometimes called “content curation.” The applicable copyright laws that cover these situations were written before the practice of sharing other people’s or other businesses’ content on social media and blogs has become so ubiquitous. Consequently, the meaning of “Fair Use” when curating copyrighted material online is still open to interpretation. Because of the potential mutual benefits for both the original authors and the curators of such content, it is usually ok to do thoughtful and careful content curation. If the five guidelines below are used, curation of other people’s content should not raise copyright problems. That said, I am certainly not an attorney and therefore I encourage businesses, if they have any specific questions beyond what I am providing here, to make the final judgement about the practice in general – or about any individual post – based on the recommendations of their own legal counsel. Commercial businesses must be much more careful about copyright infringement than individuals, because when they repost others’ content they may be making unfair use of copyrighted material for their own gain — without benefit to the original author or creator of that content.

To be clear, the guidelines below apply to the practice of the “curator” copying or embedding a thumbnail or other small image or headline from someone’s original post (“original author” or “publisher”), and placing it on their own website or social media site along with a short excerpt of text and a link back to the original author. It is never ok to simply copy images or text or other original works of authorship in their entirety and place them on your website or social media site without permission, even if attribution is made. For example, never do a Google Image search and download an image and use it without permission. You should assume that the rights to all those images belong to someone else.

On the positive side, the reason that original authors generally welcome the sharing of their content (assuming it is done according to the guidelines below) is that it benefits them much more than causing them any kind of harm such as diminishing the value of their original work. (Nonetheless the original author or publisher always has the right to ask a curator to remove the shared content from their site.) Big brands have turned from the bygone days of being overly protective about their content, to encouraging people to share it. Savvy brands understanding well that people who become their advocates by sharing content are providing the kind of free word-of-mouth advertising that is priceless. The lines blur when businesses start acting like individuals and share other people’s or other brands’ content. When a business stands to gain from another person’s intellectual property without asking for — or paying for — permission, there could be trouble brewing.

The five guidelines below are excerpted from a post on Content Curation Marketing, written by Pawan Deshpande, the founder and CEO of Curata. It’s one of the best and most straightforward I’ve seen on the subject. You can visit the Curata site to read the complete post, and to dig even deeper on this subject.

Here are the guidelines:

1. Reproduce only  portions of the headline or article. Do not reproduce the entire story.

2. Don’t use all, or even a majority, of articles available from one  source.

3. Prominently identify the original source of the material being shared (as I did with this excerpt from Curata).

4. Link your content back to the original source.

5. Add your thoughts — provide context or commentary for the what you use from other people’s sites.

I hope this helps you decide what kind of content to share and under what circumstances and conditions. As our world becomes more and more “open source” we must still respect the intellectual property rights of others. Walking that line carefully will lead to trouble-free content sharing.


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