Copyright Basics and What You Need to Know

Copyright is a form of protection for creative content, whether that content be in the form of video, photo, music, writing, or other mediums. As soon as something is created, it’s protected from being stolen or otherwise used without the creator’s permission. Whether you’re creating your own content or need to borrow content from other sources, copyright is the legal code you need to understand and abide.


Most work published after 1923 is copyright protected and requires permission to be used. However, works that are in the public domain are completely free to use. These works have either been published long enough ago (70 years after the creator’s death) and the copyright has expired, been forfeited, waived, or is otherwise not applicable. A more in-depth list of when a work enters the public domain can be found at Cornel University Library.


According to the Stanford University Libraries, requesting permission to use copyrighted material is a multi-step process. You’ll first need to determine if you even need permission for the work you want to use  You’ll then need to identify the owner and define the scope of rights needed. Will you use the content in a single advertising piece, or do you want to use it as part of a multi-media ad campaign?

The next step is to negotiate with the owner for use of their material. This is a process that can take months to complete. To protect your legal interests, make sure you get the agreement in writing. Once you have a signed agreement and have paid the owner, if applicable based on agreed-upon terms, you will then be able to use the copyrighted content.


While copyright promotes creativity and innovation by protecting creators, fair use does the same by safeguarding against censorship and stagnation of the creative market. With fair use, it is possible to use copyrighted material without needing to request permission under certain circumstances, namely, if the usage of said material is transformative. While there are no hard or fast definitions of transformative use, the four factors of measuring fair use deal with the following:
  • The nature of the work – Is the work you’re using factual or benefiting the public? You tend to have more leeway with factual works than fictional (i.e. plays or movies).
  • The amount of use – This has little to do with the set amounts (i.e. the misconception that using less than 30 seconds of a song is okay.) Rather, how much of the “heart,” or important part of the work are you using?
  • The effect of use – Will your use of the work harm the market value of the original work?
  • The purpose of use – Have you transformed or just copied the original work?


Let’s say you’re looking for that perfect sound for a video and you find a song that is just the perfect fit. You go to download it and find out you need to pay a royalty in order to use it.

If this situation sounds familiar, you may have also noticed that there are different types and descriptions of these licenses. There may be music (or image) files available for reuse, for non-commercial reuse, and for non-commercial reuse with modification. While looking for that perfect piece, keep in mind that royalty-free isn’t always free, and it definitely doesn’t mean copyright-free. You may have to pay a single licensing fee for unlimited use of the content, as opposed to a royalty fee paid for each use of the content in your videos, on your site, or on your social media pages. Be sure to read closely to make sure you are using the works you find correctly and legally or be sure to include “royalty-free” in  your next search.


Copyright also applies to the protection  of a person’s image, voice, or performance from being used without proper permission. If people in your project are going to be seen or heard and can be identified, you’ll need your actors or models to sign a simple document called a talent release form. Legal Zoom has great resources to help you easily start a release form if you’re not sure where to begin writing one up.


Copyright laws protect both the creator and the consumer. Understanding the rules is important to keep your business’s content compliant while also respecting the works of artists and content creators.

These aspects as well as many others that weren’t mentioned in this blog can help protect your business and make sure your brand has the best reputation that it can get.

When you’re ready to put one or more of these tactics to work for your business, we can help. Visit our offices page for a media consultant near you.

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