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3 Lies Everyone Believes About Avoiding Copyright Infringement

Woman researching avoiding copyright infringement

Today I’m talking about the three big lies that you might have heard about avoiding copyright infringement.

You might think you’re not committing copyright infringement, but… you could be wrong. (Did you get that reference?)

In this video, you’re going to learn what every online brand needs to know about avoiding copyright infringement on the internet.

Lie number one: if I’m not charging anything, or making money from it, then it’s not copyright infringement. Right?


Copyright infringement is what’s called “strict liability.” That’s lawyer speak for: just doing the act is enough.

There doesn’t have to be any kind of intent to commit copyright infringement. You don’t have to make money from it. Just the act of copying is copyright infringement. There’s no requirement that you make money in order for it to be considered copyright infringement.


Number two: if I add a disclaimer, or tag the original creator, then I can’t get in trouble.

Wrong. So wrong.

(Apparently, I’m into quoting Mean Girls today.)

You’ve seen “I claim no rights to this music,” or “I claim no rights to whatever” in people’s posts, right? But, like I just said, you’ve copied it. That’s it. That’s the infringement. Just copying or using someone else’s material without permission is infringement.


I’ve heard of several photographers who actually track infringement on social media, by the people that tagged them.

Using someone else’s photo without their permission, unless you properly licensed it somehow, is copyright infringement. Credit, or no credit.

Numero 3: If I found a photo on Google image search or on Pinterest, then it’s royalty-free or public domain, and I can use it, and it’s not copyright infringement.

No, no, no, no, no.

I had a client once that used a photo that he found on Google image search in a blog post. He got a big fat cease and desist letter from a firm that does volume copyright infringement work. That just means that they sent thousands of cease and desist letters — that is their bread and butter.

The photographers that they represent all register their photos with the Copyright Office. (Which is very, very smart.)

Then, they pay these firms to crack down on unauthorized uses. So this cease and desist letter asked for multiple thousands. Based on the Copyright Act, if someone infringes your work, and you’ve registered with the Copyright Office, you get from $750 to $30,000 in damages. He didn’t end up having to pay 30,000, but he had to pay something.

Hear me on this.

Google Image Search catalogs images from everywhere. They are not necessarily royalty-free. They are not necessarily public domain. Don’t look on Google image search for free images. Nope, nope, nope.

So the secret to avoiding copyright infringement online?

Use things that only you’ve created, or if you’re using something that you didn’t create, or posting something that you didn’t create, make sure you have permission.

That’s it.

So I hope that helps you to better understand the three lies everyone believes about avoiding copyright infringement on the internet. And I’ll see you next time.


A Content Creator’s Guide to Dealing with Copycats

Itching to contact that copycat, but not ready to go full lawyer-cease-and-desist, yet?

In this free resource, you’ll get:

  • A little checklist to run through before you contact someone yourself;
  • An idea of things that you can say; and
  • What NOT to say.

Click here for access.

What a [good] Lawyer Does When You’ve Been Copied

woman looking up what to do when you've been copied

In this post you’ll learn, in my opinion, what a good lawyer does when that dreaded moment hits: you’ve been copied. Spoiler alert: a good lawyer will just walk you through your options. And those options are:

  • contacting the infringer,,
  • DMCA takedown,
  • sending a letter,
  • filing a lawsuit, and
  • doing nothing.

Option When You’ve Been Copied: Contact the Infringer Yourself

People know and understand so little about copyright law and what they can and can’t do. (It’s sometimes surprising.) So it’s very possible that, even when you’ve been copied, whatever the infringer has done was an honest mistake.

Depending on the severity of what’s going on, your lawyer might tell you to contact them yourself. The message will consist of something like “Here’s what I own, here’s what you’re doing, take it down.” Something like that.

Next Option: DMCA Takedown

The next option of course is what’s called a DMCA takedown. You’ll see this at the bottom of tons of websites like Facebook, YouTube, Etsy — any platform where users can upload content. Those types of sites usually have some kind of IP policy, copyright policy, or DMCA policy. There, you can submit a takedown request. It’s protection for the website owners so that they don’t get sued for copyright infringement because of what somebody else did or what somebody else uploaded.

The takedown process is as simple as filling out that form and saying what happened, what you own, and what needs to be taken down.

A Stronger Option: Cease-and-Desist Letter

Nothing says “stop it right now” like receiving a strongly-worded letter from an attorney.

Now, not every letter has to be a FIRE AND BRIMSTONE and WE’RE GONNA SUE THE CRAP OUT OF YOU, mean, YOU’RE INFRINGING-letter. There’s mean, and there’s effective. (Side bar: Given the option, I’ll go with effective.)

A good attorney will walk you through it. “Okay, tell me about what’s happened, do you know about this company or person, what are the circumstances.” It’s often more than just “okay let’s send a letter right away.” A good attorney walks you through what’s going on and the tone that the letter should have in order to get whatever your ultimate goal is. If your ultimate goal is for the infringer to take down whatever it is, then the attorney will walk you through how to best achieve that ultimate goal.

Another Option: Filing a Lawsuit

Filing a lawsuit is always an option. Again, a good attorney will talk you through what’s going on and what the best step forward is. Oftentimes a lawsuit is not the first step forward, but sometimes it is, so that’s definitely something to talk through.

And then…. there’s do nothing.

Ultimately, it’s your decision whether you want to spend time and agony and expense to go after this infringer. Again, it depends on what’s going on. What have they infringed? If it’s something that’s really valuable to you and that’s at the core of what you create, it might be worth doing something.

But sometimes, in certain specific circumstances, a client will elect not to do anything.

So again, an attorney should walk you through all of these options. She should discuss which of these is the best plan of action for you.

I hope that helps you understand what a good attorney will do when you’ve been copied.

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Inspired Versus Infringing: A Look at “Idea Law”

woman looking at artwork wondering where the line is between inspiration versus infringement

There’s always that question about the fine line between being inspired by something and infringing. This post gives you a quick reminder on what copyright infringement is and a brief little explanation on what’s protectable under copyright law and what’s not. By the end, you’ll have a good understanding of “idea law” and how that relates to that line between inspired versus infringing.

A quick reminder on what copyright is

So first you’ve heard me talk about how copyright is a bundle of rights, right? It’s your… copyright owner has the exclusive right to copy, sell, display, publish, all of these things, and each one of those things is like a twig in the bundle of rights of copyright. 

A quick reminder on what copyright infringement is

Infringement is taking one of those things and doing it without the permission of the copyright owner. Notice I did not say “…and make money” or “…and make a profit.” It is simply doing one of those things that constitutes copyright infringement.

What’s NOT protectable under copyright law? Ideas.

These ideas are great and valuable… once you flesh them out. Once you actually create these things and the details around them, they cross the line from idea into IP. But in their form as an idea, they’re not quite protectable yet.

It helps to think about more traditional creative works when trying to explain this concept. Here are a few examples.

The TV show example

Think about a TV show. I have an idea for a TV show about doctors, and we’ll focus on the drama between the doctors at the hospital and we’ll throw in some crazy injuries or illnesses in the patients and weave that into the story. What TV show am I talking about? Who the heck knows! There are a hundred TV shows about doctors, right? Grey’s Anatomy, ER, there are more that I probably don’t even know about. So that pure idea is not original, it’s not unique.

Now what is protectable? Well in those shows that I mentioned: the script, the actual audio-visual works, the trademark… Those things that have been fleshed out and expanded upon make those TV shows unique.

The work-of-art example

Another way to think about it is an idea for a painting. So, if you tell two artists to paint a picture of a girl eating an ice cream cone those artists could create two completely different looking pieces, right? Because two artist can have the same general idea and then express it very differently. That’s probably the perfect example of how an idea is an idea alone, but the expression of the idea – the resulting artwork — is what’s protectable.

The Amy Porterfield vs. Jenna Kutcher example

Did you know that both Amy Porterfield and Jenna Kutcher have online courses on building your email list? Yup. Same general idea, different (protectable) execution. What’s the general idea? A digital course on building your email list. What’s the protectable, unique expression? The branding. The different worksheets. Definitely different video content. They each have their own take and own unique spin on the subject.

Determining when something is inspired by versus infringing

When you find that you’re inspired by someone else’s work, ask yourself: is it the general idea that you’re wanting to make your own, or would you be infringing that person’s unique expression of that idea?

Remember that unique original expression, not the idea itself, is what’s protectable under US copyright law. 

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