Plan Ahead for Copyright Infringement

Will you do the right (legal) thing?

Man and woman at table with laptop

 Amy Eckert / Getty Images

You may become a criminal, knowingly and willingly. At some point, you may be tempted to use copyright-protected material. Perhaps a client will ask you do something you know is wrong. Do you know how you will handle that situation?

The desktop publisher or graphic designer has several choices when faced with the possibility of copyright infringement. It is in your best interest to give serious consideration to how you plan to handle clients who ask you to reproduce and distribute material that is known to be protected by copyright, or where the copyright provisions are unclear. Some choices may be:

  • Inform the client that there's a risk of being sued for copyright infringement (the client may then decide whether or not to omit the questionable material).
  • Inform your client that you will do the job only after the client grants you written indemnification. (Even then the designer is always open to a copyright infringement suit so this isn't really a great option.)
  • Do the job (with or without informing the client), knowing that you are running some risk, but taking into account how likely it is that the copyright holder will sue for copyright infringement. (Not a good policy.)
  • Have a policy of accepting no copyrighted material in order to avoid copyright infringement (unless you also receive permission from the copyright holder).

When in doubt, it is generally best to err on the side of caution. If you know it's illegal, it's illegal. The fact that only a small number of copies are involved makes no difference. The fact that everyone is doing it isn't a defense. It's also a good idea to put your policy on copyrights and permissions into your freelance contract.

In some instances, you may be able to claim innocent copyright infringement. If a client tells you that he has permission from the author to use an article in his newsletter, you might not be held liable if a case of copyright infringement is brought by the author. On the other hand, if a client asks you to incorporate a Charlie Brown or Bart Simpson graphic into a flier, you should recognize that it is copyright-protected and registered and that permission is needed to use that art. Don't just take their word for it, no matter how honest you feel the client is being. Ask for a copy of the written permission or release. Many copyright holders have a specific process and form that allows the use of their material and it's never just a verbal agreement.

Unless you transfer one or more of them, you have five exclusive rights to your own work:

  • the right to reproduce the work (make copies) ;
  • the right to adapt it (make new versions) ;
  • the right to distribute or publish the work;
  • the right to perform the work in public; and
  • the right to display it.

Stating "all rights reserved" is simply a way of saying that you, the copyright holder, keep all those rights unless you specifically give someone else permission to copy it, display it, etc.

This article originally appeared in The INK Spot magazine.