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Have you ever screenshotted a photo from Instagram and reposted it? Or borrowed a quote from another creator’s video?

Every day we come into contact with content we can share, engage with, and learn from. But at what point does borrowing become copyright infringement?

How can you avoid copyright infringement and protect yourself from penalties and nasty surprises?

We sat down with Yasmine Salem Hamdan, an intellectual property lawyer and founder of Coaches and Company, to learn what every digital entrepreneur needs to know when it comes to copyright infringement. We also heard from Rosezena Pierce, a trademark and business attorney and founder of R.J. Pierce Law Group with over 118,000 followers on Instagram to find out her key tips on how to avoid copyright infringement and keep yourself and your business out of trouble.

Here’s what you need to know about copyright infringement and what the rules are. Skip ahead to a section here:


What is copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement happens when you use copyright-protected material without the copyright holder’s permission. If you copy, share, show, or lend copyright-protected content to other people, you’re in danger of copyright infringement.

Copyright infringement can include:

  • Copying the content
  • Issuing copies of the content to the public
  • Renting or lending the content to the public
  • Performing or showing it to the public
  • Communicating it to the public

As a general rule of thumb, if something is worth copying, it is protected by copyright.

As well as the examples listed above – which are known as primary copyright infringement – you can also be guilty of secondary copyright infringement. This includes importing infringing copy, possessing an infringing copy, and providing other people with the tools to make an infringing copy.

You’re still at risk of copyright infringement even if you:

  • Got the content from someone else
  • See other people using the content too
  • Give credit to the original copyright owner
  • Add a disclaimer like “I don’t own the rights” or “no infringement intended”
  • Added your own material to the original content

It’s possible to infringe someone else’s intellectual property rights even without meaning to, so it’s important to always be aware of where you’re getting your content from and whether or not you actually have the right to be using it.

As Yasmine explains:

If you see it online and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I wanna use that in my course. I wanna put that on a t-shirt. I wanna use it on my website,” make sure you have a proper license to use it.

That’s one of the biggest things that I see online as far as copyright infringement goes. And a lot of the time, it’s unintentional, but you’re gonna learn that intention doesn’t always matter. And ignorance of the law is no excuse.

So how can you make sure you avoid copyright infringement?

10 tips to avoid copyright infringement

Copyright infringement is illegal for both companies and individuals. Here are nine tips to help you avoid copyright infringement and set your business off on the right track.

  1. Understand who owns what content

At its most basic, the creator and owner of the original content is the only one who has exclusive rights to use it, reproduce it, publish it, and license it to others.

That means that if you haven’t created or bought the content you want to use, you’re at risk of copyright infringement.

Just because a piece of content is available for free on the internet doesn’t mean you have the right to reproduce it. For example, if you find an image on Pinterest or an infographic on someone’s Facebook Story or another content channel, you can’t necessarily use it. To reproduce it, even to repost it on your Instagram page, can be considered an infringement of someone’s copyright.

This applies to your content, too. If you’ve created something original, it is your intellectual property, and you have an exclusive copyright. If someone else copies it or uses it without permission, this is illegal.

  1. Don’t use any content without consent

To avoid copyright infringement, it’s really important not to use anyone else’s content without their written consent.

If you see something you like and want to share or use, the process can be as simple as sending a DM to the creator saying, “Hey, do you mind if I reshare this on my profile?” In other cases, it might be as comprehensive or as extensive as getting a full licensing agreement, depending on the type of content, the size of the brand, and what you want to do with it.

This is the easiest and most essential way to avoid copyright infringement – if in doubt, ask for permission.

  1. Form brand partnerships with other creators

As well as getting permission from copyright owners and avoiding copyright infringement, reaching out to other creators also offers an opportunity for your brand.

If you see something you love or you get inspired by another creator’s work, why not reach out about a potential brand partnership or co-marketing opportunity?

Rosezena Pierce has a great example of this.  When she took her daughter to Disneyland, she noticed everyone was walking around with Mickey Mouse shoes on. The shoes were Vans. To celebrate the 90th anniversary of Disney’s Mickey Mouse character, the two brands did a limited edition collaboration that resulted in a special collection of 11 Mickey Mouse designs.

For your own business, you can use brand collaborations to bring fresh ideas and expertise to your brand while also opening up opportunities for co-marketing and tapping into new markets and brand communities.

  1. Create unique content

The secret to copyright law lies in the concept of unique expression.

Other people will have created content related to your niche. If you’re a course creator, you’re unlikely to be the first person to teach about your topic. Crucially, the key to avoiding copyright infringement is to make sure that you put your own unique spin on your content.

Express the information in your own way, drawing on your own personal expertise in the area and using your own creative ideas. Create something that is unique to you, even if others have talked about the idea, topic, or concept before. Be original and inventive with the way you present, explain, and teach the content.

In short, don’t copy other creators. Ever.

  1. Always get written copyright agreements

If you’re outsourcing certain tasks like design, content writing, and photography, it’s essential to get a written copyright agreement that will transfer copyright ownership rights from the original creator to your business.

Without a contractual agreement, your intellectual property is not protected. The copyright belongs to the original creator – in this case, the graphic designer, content writer or photographer – and they can do what they like with that content.

If you’re spending the money to create and promote your course or your business, you want to make sure that you own the content and have the copyrights. This is really critical to protect your intellectual property and avoid legal trouble in the future.

  1. Make your copyright policy clear to customers

Help customers learn how to avoid copyright infringement by being clear about your copyright policy. If you’re engaging in one-on-one work with a client or you’re enrolling them in your product, course, or digital service, make sure there are legal terms in place that clearly communicate the terms of use for your services.

This includes specifying how customers can access your content, how long they have access to it, how they can use the content, and how they can share it. Can they take that content and repurpose it for their own business? If the answer is no, make sure you’re communicating that in legal terms.

If you’re not sure how to do this or where to start, it’s best to consult a legal professional.

  1. Understand the consequences of copyright infringement

Copyright infringement – whether intentional or unintentional – can be very messy for your business.

Intellectual property infringement of any kind can do serious damage to your reputation, which in turn can have extremely harmful consequences for your brand and your business. These consequences may be irreversible. You lose credibility with your audience when they discover you’re a copycat. 

On top of the reputational risks, copyright infringement is illegal. This means it can lead to hefty fines and even imprisonment in some regions.

Make sure you know what copyright infringement is, who has ownership over the material you’re using and selling, and what rights you’re granting to your customers.

  1. Understand Fair Use 

Fair Use allows you to reproduce parts of copyrighted material without the author’s permission in certain circumstances.

Specifically, if you intend to use another’s work for a “limited and transformative” purpose, then it passes as Fair Use, and you are not guilty of copyright infringement.

So what exactly qualifies as “limited and transformative”? The truth is there are still lots of grey areas, and every country interprets the law differently. But, on a high level, common examples of Fair Use include: 

  • A news outlet uses a photo from a public event to illustrate a news story. In this scenario, the news outlet is using a photo taken at a public event, such as a protest or a rally, as part of their news coverage. This use is considered fair because it is being used for reporting purposes, and the photo is not being used to promote a product or service.
  • A comedian creates a parody of a popular song to criticize the lyrics or the artist’s message. In this scenario, the comedian is creating a parody of a popular song to criticize the lyrics or the artist’s message. This use is considered fair because it is a form of commentary and criticism, and the parody is not being used to replace the original song or its market.
  • A teacher uses a short excerpt from a novel as a part of a lesson to teach literary techniques. In this scenario, the teacher is using a small portion of the novel to teach about literary techniques such as character development, plot, or theme. This use is considered fair because it is being used for educational purposes, is not being sold or distributed, and does not impact the potential market for the novel.

Say you post a review of a concert you attended with actual event clips without monetizing the content; it passes for fair use. But if you place ads on the review video, it may no longer be fair use as you’ve monetized the content. 

Most social platforms like YouTube have specific guidelines for Fair Use. So ensure that you read and understand them before incorporating another person’s content into your work.

  1. Use public domain materials 

Public domain material is any content that isn’t subject to copyright laws. In other words, you’re free to use these materials as you like. 

Sometimes, the original creator of a piece of content intentionally allows for public use, as is the case with royalty-free images and videos. In other cases: 

  • The work isn’t subject to copyright protection 
  • the copyright has expired
  • the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules

You can find public domain materials in Open Resources libraries, online and offline. You can also search for them in the Creative Commons. The Creative Commons website provides a searchable database of works that are available under Creative Commons licenses, making it easy for creators to find and use content in their own projects.

  1. Credit sources 

Every artist steals (Picasso’s words, not ours). It’s okay to draw inspiration or even include information from another creator’s work — you’re not an island of knowledge. But when you do this, ensure you credit them — especially if you heavily borrow from their work. 

Some instances of how this plays out in real-time: 

  • Say you run a literary YouTube channel. In that case, you should credit the authors of any of the books you review. 
  • If you recreate another person’s concept — makeup videos, TikTok dances, and the like — credit them.
  • If you’re using an image or other visual element, you should include a caption or credit line that identifies the source of the image.

The crediting process differs from one platform to the other. On social media platforms, crediting another creator is as simple as tagging them on your post. In more formal settings like academia, you need to cite sources using a standard referencing list. 

When in doubt, it’s always better to err on the side of over-crediting. It’s better to give too much credit than not enough, and it shows that you value the work of others.

Different types of copyright infringement 

When you upload content to YouTube, Facebook, and other social media sites, it’s important to make sure that your content is within copyright laws. Let’s take a look at how to avoid copyright infringement across different channels and tips you can use to keep your content legal. Always.\

Tl; Dr

Not ready to read the entire thing? Here’s a quick look at what we covered in this section. 

How to avoid copyright violations as a userHow to protect your work from copyright infringement
Copyright infringement on social media
  • Get permission before reposting 
  • Use built-in sharing tools
Be clear on your copyrighting policy
Copyright infringement on Youtube
  • Watermark your content
  • Create original footage
Check the music copyright
Image copyright infringement 
  • Create your own images
  • Always find the original source of an image
  • Use royalty-free images 
Add copyright information to your image’s metadata
Digital copyright infringement
  • Seek permission for derivative works
  • Use Open Source and Creative Commons materials
  • Use DRM protection
  • License your digital products

Copyright infringement on social media

Social media is one of the worst places on the internet for copyright infringement.

It’s really common to see people posting images, videos, graphics and music without any acknowledgment to the original owner or creator. Most of these posts don’t have permission from the copyright owner, so technically, they’re infringing their intellectual property rights.

How to avoid copyright infringement on social media

Here are three ways to keep your business and your brand out of copyright troubles.

  1. Get permission before reposting

As with a lot of copyright infringement issues, the best way to avoid copyright infringement on social media is to make sure you get permission from the original creator or owner before reposting or using the content.

If you’re not sure who the owner is, don’t risk it. Use content from a free stock content site that you know will be free from copyright restrictions, such as Canva or Pixabay.

  1. Use built-in sharing tools

A great tip for how to avoid copyright infringement on social media is to use built-in sharing tools when reposting other creators’ content. For example, if you’re on Twitter and you want to share something from another account, hit the retweet button. Generally speaking, a retweet can’t legally be classed as direct copyright infringement, so you’re covered.

You can share ideas that are relevant to your business and your audience without risking copyright infringement.

  1. Make your copyright policy clear

As well as sharing other people’s content, it’s also important to protect your own intellectual property rights on social media. Make it easy for your community to avoid copyright infringement by making your own copyright policy clear.

That includes specifying:

  • How and when it’s okay to share your content,
  • How you’d like to be credited
  • When people should ask your permission

If you can produce clear, straightforward guidelines for copyright related to your content, you can increase the chance that people will share your work responsibly and give you credit for what you’ve produced.

You’re always going to have people who break the rules, but copyright guidelines can help remind people what the limits are when it comes to your content.

Copyright infringement on YouTube 

Copyright infringement is also a big problem on YouTube. With so many content creators producing and uploading their videos to the platform, the question of how to avoid copyright infringement on YouTube is an important one to cover.

How to avoid copyright infringement on YouTube

Here are 3 tips for avoiding copyright infringement in your videos.

  1. Create original footage

The easiest way to avoid copyright infringement on YouTube is to create and use your own content. That means putting yourself in front of the camera and using a unique script that you or a member of your team has written.

If you record your own videos and upload them, you can massively reduce the chances of being flagged for copyright infringement. Just make sure that what you’re saying is original, too. Don’t borrow other creators’ taglines or catchphrases without permission. 

  1. Check the music copyright

When it comes to how to avoid copyright infringement on YouTube, one of the biggest pitfalls for content creators is music copyright.

YouTube allows copyright owners to make claims on any content that uses copyrighted material without prior permission, and they have a special system that allows them to automatically trigger a copyright claim for copyrighted music.

This means there’s a high risk of you triggering a copyright claim if you use copyrighted music on your YouTube videos. To avoid copyright infringement on YouTube, you need to use stock music or royalty-free music for your videos. YouTube has an Audio Library where you can find music. You can also use popular music that has been released from copyright, available from music databases like Epidemic Sound or Lickd.

  1. Watermark your content

To prevent other people from stealing your content, make sure you watermark your YouTube videos and include a copyright notice. Add your logo somewhere to the video. This helps make sure that anyone trying to use your content has to give you credit and avoids copyright infringement on YouTube.

You can also add a copyright policy to the end of your video and your caption, specifying that anyone wanting to use your content needs to obtain your permission first.

Digital product copyright infringement 

The digital product market is big, really big. While this is great news for creators looking to earn extra income from their knowledge, it can be a copyright nightmare. Anyone can create digital products using your knowledge or content without permission — and you won’t even know. That’s why you need to take extra care to protect your work. 

How to protect your work from digital product copyright infringement

Let’s take a look at three practical ways to reduce copyright infringement risk for your content and knowledge. 

  1. Use Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection

Digital rights management (DRM) is a set of access control technologies that restrict the use, copying, modification, and distribution of copyrighted works.  

The purpose of DRM is to protect the rights of content owners and prevent unauthorized access to or use of your intellectual property. Specifically, it lets you:

  • Restrict content access to only authorized devices
  • Set content permissions for controlling what people can do with your digital product online
  • Add watermarks to your content
  • Block certain locations from viewing and downloading your product

To set this up, you’ll need a DRM license from a provider like Apple or Google. 

  1. License your digital products 

Licensing your digital products allows you to set clear terms and conditions for use, which can help to avoid copyright infringements, disputes, and legal issues down the line.

You can obtain a general digital product license like “All Rights Reserved,” which gives you complete control over your digital product and its distribution. It means that no one can use, copy, or distribute your work without your permission. 

Additionally, you can obtain specific digital product licenses for additional protection. For an ebook, for example, you’ll need to register with the U.S. Copyright Office for copyright verification. 

How to avoid copyright infringement as a user 

Here’s how to avoid copyright infringement when creating your digital product. 

  1. Seek permission for derivative works

If you want to create derivative works based on existing digital products, seek permission from the copyright holder. Say you’re creating an adaptation of another creator’s ebook; you’ll need to get the go-ahead from them first. 

Seeking permission is pretty much a straightforward process. You can send an email to the creator detailing what you want to use their work for and asking for consent. The creator might ask their legal team to draw up a formal authorization agreement grating you express permission to include their work in your digital product. 

  1. Use Open Source and Creative Commons materials

Consider using open-source software or digital products released under Creative Commons licenses. Creative Commons licenses give creators the ability to grant permissions to others to use their work in specific ways while still retaining some control over their content. 

There are several different types of Creative Commons licenses, each with its own set of conditions and permissions. Some of them require attribution to the original creator, while others prohibit commercial use of the work.

Find out the laws that apply to the source content and stick to them. 

Image copyright infringement 

It’s so easy to grab an image off the web and add it to your content or share it on social. But did you know doing this might be setting you up for a hefty copyright lawsuit? 

Let’s see how to protect yourself from copyright troubles — whether you’re the original creator or just looking to enhance your content with images. 

How to avoid image copyright infringement as a user

Here are three of the most common ways to reduce your risk of unauthorized image usage as a creator. 

  1. Create your own images

The best way to avoid image copyright infringement is to create your own images. You don’t have to be a professional photographer to pull this off. You can take a photo with your smartphone and edit it with a simple software tool like Canva. 

Creating your own images gives you full control over the content, and can use them without worrying about infringing on someone else’s copyright.

  1. Always find the original source of an image to determine if it’s safe to use 

Sometimes, third-party websites pass off copyrighted images as their own and act like they’re free to use. If you fall for this, you could unintentionally find yourself in copyright trouble when the real owner finds out. That’s why you need to verify that a website is legally authorized to permit image usage before going ahead with it. 

Google’s reverse image search can help you find the original source of an image and determine whether it is safe to use. Simply upload the image to Google and it will search the web for similar images, allowing you to see where the image came from and whether it is being used legally.

  1. Use images that are available for free or under a license that allows for their use 

There are many websites that offer royalty-free images, such as Pexels, Unsplash, and Pixabay. These images are typically licensed under a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license, which means they can be used for any purpose, including commercial use, without attribution. 

Additionally, many stock photo websites offer images that can be licensed for use under specific usage terms and conditions. Find one that suits your needs and use the available images legally. 

How to protect your images from copyright violations 

Photographers, visual artists, and digital illustrators need to protect their work from unauthorized use. One way to do this is to add copyright information to your image’s metadata. 

Metadata stores important information about the image’s creation process, like the camera used for taking the photo, data and time of the footage, and so on.  

Use photo editing software like Lightroom or Adobe Premier Pro to change your image’s metadata. Add copyright information here like:  

  • A clear notice indicating that the work is protected by copyright. For example: “Copyright © [Year] [Your Name]. All rights reserved.”
  • License information and usage terms
  • Your name or the name of the photographer should be included as the creator or author of the work.

The top 3 questions to ask to help you avoid copyright infringement

If you’re still not sure whether or not your content can be classed as copyright infringement, try asking these questions whenever you create a new piece of content for your brand:

  1. Have I created all of this content myself?
  2. If not, do I have permission to use all of the content included?
  3. If not, does my use of this content fall within an exception to copyright infringement like “fair use”?

Use these questions as a checklist to make sure you’re always within copyright laws and avoid any negative consequences for your business.

Get to grips with copyright laws and copyright infringement for your business

For content creators, copyright infringement is a key issue to understand – especially when you’re starting to create content online for the first time. It’s important to know how to avoid copyright infringement with your content and how to protect your intellectual property from other people.

When in doubt, it’s best to consult an intellectual property lawyer who can provide specific legal advice on issues relating to copyright infringement and your intellectual property rights.

Copyright infringement FAQs 

Find answers to common questions about copyright infringement. 

  1. How do you escape copyright infringement as a digital creator? 

Before creating any new piece of content, you can ask yourself three key questions: Have I created all of this content myself? If not, do I have permission to use all of the content included? If not, does my use of this content fall within an exception to copyright infringement like “fair use”?

Vetting your content with these questions ensures that you only publish original content or content with information that you’re authorized to use. 

  1. What should I do if I think someone has infringed my copyright?

If you think someone has infringed your copyright, you should contact them and request that they remove the infringing content. If they refuse, you may need to take legal action or consult with an intellectual property lawyer.

  1. What are some examples of copyright infringement?

Examples of copyright infringement include using someone else’s photographs, music, videos, or written works without their permission. 

This blog was originally posted in June 2022, it has since been updated with new information in February 2024.