How To Avoid Copyright Infringement On YouTube

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Imagine how you would feel if you discovered someone had stolen your iPad and showed it off to everyone claiming it was their own. I bet you would be annoyed and upset, well that is exactly how I felt when I realised someone had stolen one of my videos and uploaded it to their own YouTube channel.

Screen shot from Math Trick For Your Fingers - Easy Multiplication
Screen shot from Math Trick For Your Fingers - Easy Multiplication

In 2007 I created a video and uploaded it to my Metacafe channel, (Metacafe is a video sharing site), but in June 2013 I found my video on YouTube. At first I was surprised, I had never uploaded it to YouTube and I had never given anyone else permission to use my content. My surprise turned to anger when I realised at least six people had copied my video and generated a total of
1.3 million views on YouTube.

The real point is the unauthorised copying of anyone's work is theft. There is a common misconception that content available on the Internet is free to copy and re-use, but most of the time this is not true. The internet is just like the regular world where copyright protects the creator of a work that is both creative and has been fixed in some tangible medium. That includes photographs, art works, video & sound recordings, literary works, etc. and only the copyright owner can benefit commercially from that work and only the copyright owner can determine how that work can be used. Even if someone does not intend to make money from a copyrighted work they cannot copy and use it without permission. However it maybe possible to use a work without infringing copyright under "fair use" or "fair dealing". Fair use is typically restricted to study, instruction, review or criticism, news reporting and incidental use, however certain restrictions will apply. For more details on fair use in the UK see the copyright service website.

In both the UK and US there is no need to register a copyright since your copyright is automatic on creation or publication of a work. When an original work is created in the UK it is also automatically protected in most other parts of the world, so usually there is no need to register the copyright elsewhere. Furthermore a copyright notice is not actually required for a work to be protected by copyright law. Just because a video or photograph lacks a copyright notice does not mean it is available for anyone to copy and use, whether commercially or non-commercially. However, a copyright notice would prevent others claiming "innocent infringement" of your copyright. A typical copyright notice would be the © symbol, your name and the year the work was created or published. In the US you can voluntarily register your copyright in a work with the US Copyright Office. They recommend you copyright your work because if your copyright is infringed and you wish to take legal action you will have to register your copyright anyway. However in the UK the Intellectual Property Office says, "There is no official copyright register because copyright is automatic."

If you are wondering, "How do I prove I own the copyright", do not be fooled by the old wives tale that posting a copy of your work to yourself proves your ownership, all it shows is that you were in possession of the work at that time. Better proof would be possession of your original drafts and files. In the case of a video, that would be the original source footage, images, draft script and production files. Possession of these should support your claim more effectively than mailing the finished work to yourself by registered post.

However, before you start complaining about someone infringing your copyright be sure you actually own it. If you personally created the video the rights will be yours but did you pay someone to make the video for you? If you did and that person is your employee the copyright is likely to belong to you, but if they are not one of your employees or a separate company the copyright will belong to them. Unless you have a contract that assigns the rights to you the intellectual property rights belong to the creator. For instance, if you have ever hired a wedding photographer you will be familiar with the proofs being watermarked, not getting the original negatives or image files and not being allowed to scan the prints. Why? Because you don't own the copyright to your own wedding photographs, the photographer does. That's the law!

Generally the only safe way to avoid infringing someone else's copyright is to create your own video, and generally that is true provided you created EVERYTHING in your video. Say you are a travel agent and want a promotional video about your weekend breaks to Paris using footage you took yourself. Naturally the landmark that instantly places you in Paris is the Eiffel Tower so you take your shots with the tower prominently in the background. Provided you shot your video during the day everything is fine but if you did it at night, when the Eiffel Tower is lit up, you will need to pay a fee and get a signed release form, because the Eiffel Tower lights are subject to copyright. There are many other examples of buildings you want to avoid in a commercial video, and when it comes to featuring songs there is plenty to trip you up. "Happy Birthday", a song most people assume to be traditional and in the public domain, is actually owned by Warner/Chappell and generates royalties every year thought to be worth millions of dollars. Unless you get permission and pay the appropriate fee avoid using the song in your commercial video.

[AMENDMENT: Happy Birthday has now been ruled to be in the Public Domain. In September 2015 US district judge George H King ruled the copyright claim filed by the Clayton F Summy Co. in 1935 only applied to a specific arrangement of the song, not the tune itself. Judge King also ruled that Summy never acquired the rights to the song’s lyrics. Therefore, the successors-in-interest to Summy Co. do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics.]

Why should you be concerned about not breaching someone else's copyright? because the consequences can be severe. Corporations tend to strenuously protect their intellectual property rights and may choose to sue for infringement. In the U.S. offenders could be subject to statutory damages of up to $150,000 per work so you would be well advised to check first before getting yourself into a legal quagmire.

Disclaimer: Please note the above information is not legal advice and is provided for informational purposes only. If you require advice on copyright issues consult a legal professional specialising in intellectual property rights.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tosh Lubek is an award winning writer/producer and founder of Tosh Lubek Productions, a company based in the West of Scotland that creates website videos and radio advertising for clients across the UK and Ireland.

Tosh Lubek can be contacted on 01292 570823 or through his website


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