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Understanding The Copyright License

The Web is full of creative and practical resources that we can use to improve our projects. Photography, fonts, music and code are perfect examples. Finding stock objects and existing implementations is often quicker, cheaper and more practical than producing your own.

Copyright And License

Whether free or not, these resources normally come with a license to ensure fair use. For professionals, understanding the limitations of a license is critical; with this knowledge, you’d be surprised by what’s available. Understanding copyright and licenses allows us to do what we do best: be creative.

Quick disclaimer: I am not a lawyer! This is not legal advice, only the results of my own research. Please always read the entire license of any resource you use.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Copyright And Licensing

When we create something — let’s say a photograph — we own the copyright, which is our exclusive right as the author to own that work. We control who else can use our work and in what manner. For example, I could allow someone to print my photograph or adapt it in a piece of art. Rather than establishing verbal agreements, I can distribute my work with a license that sets the guidelines for use. The things that are copyrighted are sometimes referred to as “intellectual property.”

Licenses are granted by an authority to allow a usage; in my case, the use and distribution of resources by the copyright owner (i.e. me). I may decide to offer my photograph for free or charge a price; either way, I can include a license to limit usage, and I maintain the copyright. Just because someone pays money doesn’t mean they have full control or rights to what they’re buying. Licenses can dictate the number or uses, the bounds of use and even the length of time until the license expires.

Moreover, under “work for hire,” the employer holds the copyright, not the author or creative; in many cases, this is a company (such as a creative agency) or its client (by contractual agreement). In such cases, the creator retains “moral rights” to their work, including the right of attribution. This is partly why published articles refer to the author, although moral rights can include anonymity.

Copyright laws are incredibly complex, but this should be a good start.

What Is “Fair Use”

“Fair use” is an exception to the exclusive rights held by the copyright owner. It exists in some countries such as the US and UK. Under it, in certain cases, using work without permission is possible. If someone’s usage is defined as fair use, then they don’t need to obtain a license. Essentially, using copyrighted material is a legal right. Examples of fair use might include:

  • Educational purposes, such as teaching and student research;
  • Making commentary and criticism as part of a news report or published article.

There’s a misconception that noncommercial or nonprofit use is always acceptable. It isn’t. Fair use is a legal term and is judged case by case. Always research thoroughly if you think your use of copyrighted material is legal.

What Is “Public Domain”

Work that falls in the “public domain” basically has no copyright owner. You can use, modify and redistribute it to your heart’s content. An author can forfeit their copyright and, thus, put their work in the public domain (although it’s not quite that easy, as we’ll see later). Copyright ownership expires5 after the author’s death (generally 50 to 70 years after death in most countries).

Every country has its own interpretation of copyright law, but there are many agreements between nations. Licenses are enforced under copyright law, which is different than contract law. The distinction here is questionable within certain jurisdictions, each of which applies the law differently.

The Berne Convention6 (for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works) was established in 1886 and is an international agreement that governs copyright. It states that each member state must recognize the copyright of work from other countries, and it must extend the same rights to foreign work that it gives to those of its own citizens. It also makes clear a minium standard of protection for copyright owners. To date, 164 countries have signed this agreement.

Licenses can be limited to certain jurisdictions. So, while something may be free in one country, the copyright owner could reserve all rights in other countries.

If you’re reading this, I can guess pretty confidently that you work on the Web and that you are, or will be, purchasing licenses from copyright owners in different countries. These licenses are bound by the laws of those countries, and you must respect them.

We’re getting into political and legal territory here. Remember: if in doubt, get legal advice.

License Terminology

A license can be written from scratch, but most people choose a well-known one. We’ll cover the common licenses that relate to our industry of website design and development, specifically those that allow for free usage — “free,” meaning that no money is required. Generally, licenses that govern paid resources are written individually, but all licenses have commonalities.

There is obviously a fundamental difference between, say, development code and stock photography. So, it should come as no surprise that a range of licenses exist. Each is tailored to the usage. Before we dive into them, let’s go over some common terminology:

  • Copy
    A simple copy of the original work.
  • Modify
    To alter copyrighted work in some way before using it.
  • Derivative work
    The result of modifying copyrighted work to produce new work.
  • Distribute
    The act of giving someone your work under a license.
  • Redistribute
    The act of distributing work and its license after obtaining it under license from the original copyright owner.
  • Share alike
    Permission to distribute derivative work under the same or a similar license.
  • Credit” or “attribution
    The act of identifying the original copyright owner.
  • Copyright notice
    A written phrase or symbol (©) informing of copyright ownership (not necessarily required by law).
  • All rights reserved
    A common copyright notice declaring that no usage rights exist (again, not necessarily required).
  • Warranty
    A written guarantee included with the license (or, usually, not).

With this in mind, let’s start with the creative licenses.

Creative Commons

Lawrence Lessig founded Creative Commons7 (CC) in 2001 to create a series of easy-to-understand copyright licenses for online creative work. These licenses established the notion of “some rights reserved.”

The Creative Commons license has six variations. It’s really a collection of licenses that cover particular uses. These include whether the licensed work can be used commercially, whether it can be modified, and whether derivative work can be redistributed under the same (or a compatible) license. A Creative Commons license can be restricted to certain jurisdictions or apply internationally.


The basic Creative Commons license is CC Attribution. It allows for all copying, modification and redistribution (even commercially), provided that the original author is attributed (with no implication of endorsement). Work under CC Attribution is essentially free to use.

The CC Attribution license can be extended to CC Attribution-ShareAlike. The same rules apply, except that all derivative work must be licensed the same way. This distinction ensures that all resulting work remains free. Wikipedia uses this license for its text.

Here are the four other Creative Commons licenses:

  • CC Attribution-NoDerivs
    Redistribution is allowed, provided that attribution is given and no modifications are made.
  • CC Attribution-NonCommercial
    Everything is allowed with attribution, provided that it is not done commercially.
  • CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
    The same as above, but derivative work must be under the same license.
  • CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs
    Redistribution is allowed for noncommercial use and without any modification.

As you can see, the Creative Commons licence has six separate versions, all of which at least require attribution to the copyright owner.

You should attribute by citing the title of the work, the copyright notice, the author’s name and the license name. For example:

This work includes the photo “Photo’s Title,” available under a Creative Commons Attribution license, © Author’s Name.

If the original work includes a copyright notice, it must be left intact. Otherwise, you are free to attribute appropriately. Also, link to the work and license if possible. Informing the author is courteous but not required.

CC09 also exists. It enables copyright owners to waive all of their rights. It’s essentially a way of saying that the work is in the public domain and that there are “no rights reserved.” The concept exists because many jurisdictions don’t have a clear process for putting work in the public domain, and many legal systems actually prohibit the surrendering of lawful rights such as copyright ownership.

The Creative Commons licenses are clear and readable. As mentioned, Wikipedia uses the Attribution-ShareAlike. Flickr10 makes it easy for users to select one of the CC licenses, and it’s a great source of photography for your projects. You can even search Google for Creative Commons content11.

Software Licenses

Written code is copyrighted: you own what you write. Of course, the simplest line of code, like print('Hello World!');, can be rewritten totally independently, without knowledge of the original author, and both parties will own the copyright of their own version (however worthless it may be). But beyond a few lines, code does become valuable, and distributing it with a license is important.

Other intellectual property laws, such as patents, can also protect software. Software patent laws are hotly debated in the US, where they are granted. In many other countries, such as the UK and New Zealand, software cannot be patented. While copyright is a right, patents must be granted.

Software licenses cover the use of programming code. If you’re using a third-party library or elements from an open-source project, your usage must respect the relevant license.

Development licenses generally cover the following points:

  • How the work and modifications of it can be distributed,
  • Whether any derivative work must be made open source,
  • What copyright and other notices are required for redistribution.

Software licenses can be defined as “permissive” or “copyleft.” The latter removes the right to add further license restrictions upon redistribution.

Below is a quick rundown of common software licenses and how they’ve evolved over the decades.

MIT License Link

The MIT license12 is perhaps the most open of all. It effectively puts the work in the public domain. It explicitly gives permission, “without restriction, including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sub license, and/or sell copies of the Software.” The only condition is that the full copyright notice (which declares no warranty or liability) be included. Work released under the MIT license can be used for anything, including commercial and proprietary software.

BSD License Link

The BSD license13 is similar to the MIT license.

The original version, published in 1990, had four clauses, the last being an “advertising clause” stating that all promotional material for derivative work had to refer to the original source. This was later removed in 1999 in the “New BSD” or “Modified BSD” license.

What separates the newer three-clause BSD license from the MIT license is a clause stating that the name of the original copyright owner cannot be used to endorse any derivative work without prior permission. This eliminates any doubt about the right to use the person or organization’s name. Whether this clause is even required is debatable, because copyright and trademark laws are separate issues. Even though the MIT license does not declare this, we cannot assume permission of endorsement.

An additional two-clause “FreeBSD” or “Simplified BSD” license exists, which omits this endorsement clause and instead includes a disclaimer to disassociate any views made in derivative work from the original copyright owner. This can be seen as explicitly stating the opposite of an endorsement.

Both the MIT and BSD licenses give us complete freedom to copy, distribute and modify work for any purpose, provided that the original license and copyright notice are included. Derivative work can be released under another license or as proprietary software.

The Apache License Link

You can see from the BSD example just how difficult it is to word a license. There are so many ambiguities and connections to other laws that getting the point across is nearly impossible. Many more essentially “free” licenses have appeared in an attempt to make such intention clear.

The Apache License14 is a free software license that does not require the same license of derivative work. This means that code under the license can be used in open, free and proprietary software (like the MIT and BSD licenses).


It imposes the conditions that in any licensed file, all original copyright, attribution and trademark notices must be preserved. Additionally, with any modified work, a notice of change must be included. Any existing notices of change must also be kept. All of these notices must be distributed in a text file and in the source code or documentation.

This requirement to preserve modification notices makes the Apache license different from the MIT and BSD licenses. It also includes many more legal terms and conditions that (among other purposes) dissolves any liability of the original copyright owner.

The Apache license (version 2) is said to be GPL-compatible, meaning that a project containing code licensed under both must also be licensed under GPL version 3.

GNU General Public License Link

First written by Richard Stallman in 1989, the General Public License16 (GPL) is now at version 3 as of 2007. It was founded on the principle that we should be free to use, change, share and share changes to free software. No matter how the software is distributed, it remains free. This concept is called “copyleft.”

The basic principles of the GPL mean that, unlike the MIT, BSD and Apache licenses, work under GPL must remain under this license. GPL code can be sold, but no proprietary software can be derived from it. If you distribute any derivative work, then your source code must be made available under the same license. Essentially, once a work is released under the GPL, it remains GPL and no further restrictions can be applied.

Version 3 of the GPL specifically states that while code under the GPL can be used to implement digital rights management (DRM), using GPL code does not count as effective “protection,” and as such, anyone who breaks it cannot be help accountable under digital rights law.

Where Licenses Are Used

We already know that Wikipedia uses the Creative Commons Attribute-ShareAlike license and that Flickr allows users to choose a Creative Commons license. What else should we know?

Most JavaScript libraries are available under license by nature. jQuery17, for example, is available under dual license: either MIT or GPL v2. Other libraries are available under MIT, such as Modernizr18 (which is also under BSD), Raphaël and Respond.js19 (also under GPL v2). You can use all of these libraries while reserving rights for your own derivative work, provided that you include the relevant copyright notices for these libraries.

Plug-Ins and Themes Link

WordPress and Drupal are important ones to note because they’re available only under GPL v2. This means that any derivative work must also be licensed under GPL; and according to the WordPress license page20, this includes all plug-ins and themes:

Part of this license outlines requirements for derivative works, such as plugins or themes. Derivatives of WordPress code inherit the GPL license. […] There is some legal grey area regarding what is considered a derivative work, but we feel strongly that plugins and themes are derivative work and thus inherit the GPL license. If you disagree, you might want to consider a non-GPL platform…

Drupal’s licensing FAQ21 is more specific about this:

The GPL requires that if you make a derivative work of Drupal and distribute it to someone else, you must provide that person with the source code under the terms of the GPL so that they may modify and redistribute it under the terms of the GPL as well. However, you are under no obligation to distribute the code to anyone else. If you do not distribute the code but use it only within your organization, then you are not required to distribute it to anyone at all.

What does this mean? If you’re developing a WordPress or Drupal theme, it must be under GPL. You can distribute your work, should you choose.

If you’re developing a theme for personal use or for a client, you have little to worry about because you are not technically “distributing” it.

Selling themes on the open market is a gray area, because distribution must be under the GPL. The GPL allows you to sell this work, but it also allows others to redistribute and sell it, too; you can’t do much about that. However, theoretically, the only derivative work that falls under GPL is the PHP code; any images, CSS and other content in your project remain yours. On top of that, you are free to charge extra for technical support and so on.

Remember that while WordPress is open source and free under the GPL, it is still copyrighted. You have to respect its chosen license.

Does My Work Need A License?

If you’re publishing content online — be it design work, photography, blog articles, audio or video — then the default is “all rights reserved”. Unless you publish it under a license (or through a Web service that reserves some rights for itself — and most do), then only you hold copyright. That’s great, but what do you gain by giving others permission?

In his article “Pick a License, Any License2922,” Jeff Atwood highlights the interesting example of developers who publish code on their blogs. Unless the developer states otherwise, no one has permission to use that code in their project. Always consider the benefits of others using and attributing your work: it could be great self-promotion!

It’s worth noting that you do not need to issue a license in order to give permission for someone to use your work. Some areas of the law favor verbal and contractual agreements over copyright.

Additionally, when using services such as Twitter and Flickr, you are probably giving those websites full rights to your work as part of their terms of service. These websites couldn’t operate without your content, but they do take every advantage of reserving full rights over the content you publish. This allows them to develop their service in different ways on the strength of your content.

Take this excerpt from Yahoo’s terms of service23, which Flickr uses:

[…] you grant Yahoo! the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive and fully sub-licensable right and license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such Content (in whole or part) worldwide and/or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed […]

That covers just about everything!

While Flickr allows you to upload photos under a Creative Commons license for others to use, you also grant Yahoo permission to do anything it likes with them. I’m not condemning Yahoo for this practice because it’s common to all Web services. I’m just highlight the importance of reading the terms and conditions and understanding where you publish work and what rights you’re giving away.

Final Thoughts

With this information, you should have a strong understanding of how copyright and licenses work, why they exist and what they achieve. Ignorance of copyright — as of any law — is no excuse. By understanding it, we can take advantage of the wealth of creative content across the Web. If you’re publishing work online, consider sharing it under a license. You never know what interesting things people will do with it.

As mentioned, this article is the result of my own research and is not legal advice. You’ll need the latter if you’re unsure about copyright licenses.

  1. Copyright applies to the Web.
  2. Your work is protected under copyright as soon as it’s created and protected for your lifetime, plus 70 years.
  3. Copyright expires. When copyright expires, the work becomes public domain.
  4. Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only the result tangible expression of the idea can. (updated)
  5. You may use logos and trademarks in your works.
  6. You may use copyrighted material under the “fair use” doctrine.
  7. You may quote only limited portions of work. You may publish excerpts, not whole articles.
  8. You have to ask author’s permission to translate his/her article.
  9. The removal of the copyrighted material doesn’t remove the copyright infringement.
  10. If something looks copyrighted, you should assume it is. (updated)
  11. Advertising protected material without an agreement is illegal.
  12. You may not always delete or modify your visitors’ comments.
  13. User generated content is the property of the users.
  14. Copyright is violated by using information, not by charging for it.
  15. Getting explicit permission can save you a lot of trouble.

Further Reading Link


Footnotes Link

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David Bushell is a website designer and front-end developer working at Browser Creative, London. He blogs regularly at and xheight, and shares inspiration and web design related interests at Design Heroes. You can also follow him on Twitter.

  1. 1

    Roger Sievers

    June 14, 2011 5:16 am

    I appreciated the clear cut note about the wordpress themes and plugins. I’ve read so many forums and threads of people asking about “copyrights” on themes and plugins, and it always goes back to the GPL. Good work!

  2. 2

    Pablo Lara H

    June 14, 2011 5:17 am

    Great article, David!

  3. 4

    Excellent article, clear and concise information on a extremely important topic. I’ve studied many of these topics before, but you definitely shed some light on some things, especially GLO. Thanks for sharing!! And keep these pearls of wisdom coming.

  4. 5

    What about the WTFPL license (Do what the **** you want to) :D

  5. 6

    Clear and helpful, thanks for this! I don’t normally leave a comment just congratulating an author for his article, without having anything else to say. But I’ll make an exception for this one ;-)

  6. 7

    But if you make a WordPress theme, the CSS and images aren’t necessarily GPL. Only the templates (php) are:

    Isn’t that the case?

  7. 8

    Aniket Pant

    June 14, 2011 8:21 am

    Interesting and clear. This is must for any new people in the industry.
    Totally love it. Will be telling people to read this :)

  8. 9

    David Bushell

    June 14, 2011 8:54 am

    Thanks for the kind words everyone!

    A few people have pointed out on Twitter that I haven’t mentioned font licensing in this article so I’ll explain here:

    Fonts are rather simple in regards to acceptable usage. You are rarely (if ever) allowed to redistribute fonts that you buy. For traditional print use the foundries often allow a font license to cover a certain number of computers (e.g. for an agency of 5 machines). You should not supply your client or printer the font used in graphic artwork (unless they also buy a license). Most designers convert text to vector outlines to avoid this.

    Modern web fonts (using the @font-face CSS) require redistribute for technical reasons, therefore it’s illegal to use fonts online unless you buy a specific “web license”.

    Web licenses are very new to our industry and they’re generally provided through a distribution service like This means you never get hold of the actual font file. It also means they can charge you on a yearly basis and switch of the distribution to your website if you don’t pay the subscription. You’ll know if you have a web license!

    The only other way to use fonts online without a web license is to embed them as text in an image, or Flash content. Both methods are undesirable for many reasons including accessibility.

    • 10

      Firstly, don’t use the word ‘illegal’ in relation to this sort of thing – some people may be breaking a license agreement if they misuse a font, but that does not make it criminal.
      Secondly, there are now a large number of fonts available for @fontface use that are free, either to install on your own website or via Google itself etc., so the tone of the last comment in particular is way too heavy.

    • 11

      I disagree. Embedding them as outlines in an image is the ONLY approach you should be taking if the text is part of a logo. Otherwise consistency in reproduction is limited. For branding this is essential.

  9. 12

    Great article David. I have a question involving derivatives (i guess) that does not seem to get touched on in your article that involves logos and trademarks… if one were to take a photograph of a street scene, for example, that had a prominent trademarked logo or sign (say Coca-cola, or Shell oil, or whatever…) and use that personal photo as the basis for some original artwork (painting, altered photo… whatever) what type of permissions are required from the logo/sign trademark owner. Warhol’s Campbell soup paintings are not a great example of what I mean here as those soup labels and logos were the primary focus… I’m thinking more secondary background stuff.

    • 13

      David Bushell

      June 14, 2011 10:36 am

      It’s my understanding that Warhol’s Campbell soup could possibly fall under the right to parody/comment. Although the Museum of Modern Art’s website says that it is licensed from Campbell’s. I’d imagine Warhol didn’t care either way and legal issues were settled many years after.

      With photography you must also consider privacy laws (which are just as vast and varying,) but photographing copyrighted work is ilegal, just as recording copyrighted music is ilegal—it’s all derivative work. If you’re making commentary in a news report or even a blog then it’s generally ok as “fair use”. It’s all about how the photograph is published. The publisher has the responsibility. That’s my limited understanding! Any photographers out there who can shed more light on this matter?

      It’s not just logos but everything that can be copyrighted, architecture for example. Apparently the night time lighting of the Eiffel Tower is copyrighted!

      • 14

        Yes David the lighting of the Eiffel Tower is copyrighted, like any other art form. This will only protect against exploitation for commercial purposes, not holiday snaps ;) It applies for any architectural building in the background of a photograph as well.

        I personally find the copyright on the color Magenta by T-Mobile (Deutsch Telco) the most crazy of all!

        For new freelancers, that’s when a comprehensive contract is critical. Not only it will stipulate rights on your design, but should also articulate the client’s responsibility for the content provided.

      • 15

        Yeah, I remember when I was in a art gallery with classmates, and we weren’t allowed to take photographs of the drawings. Now I understand the reason (*:

  10. 16

    At my agency, I tend to be the person who does the research on this stuff. Can we use this on a commercial site? Can we purchase a commercial license? That sort of thing.

    My biggest pet peeve when it comes to copyrights is navigating the not-so-friendly font licensing seas. It seems there’s almost never a standard license, and if you can even find a license, they’re often quite vague when it comes to using the fonts in an online capacity.

    I’d love to hear some of the ways other agencies deal with this sort of problem (Aside from limiting your designers to services like Typekit,, etc.)

  11. 17

    2 questions –
    1. Sine a website is a product, doesn’t delivering it to the client (read – the user) constitute as delivering a product? I find that this is a real problem with using GPL for websites.
    2. Why does the css not fall under the same rules as the php code? I would say that is a very brave assumption. And anyway, if the above point is considered than the following point can be made:
    a. the website owner acquires a template (which is under GPL).
    b. the website is obliged by law to supply the source of all GPL licensed parts of his code upon distribution
    c. the website delivers a product to a user (many times this can even be a paid service).
    d. thus the template must also be delivered as GPL to the user.

    • 18

      David Bushell

      June 15, 2011 12:39 am

      1. Delivering work to a client does not necessarily count as redistribution depending on how the contract is set up. I believe it’s still “work for hire”, where they take copyright upon sign-off. No “redistribution” takes place and the source code can be kept private should the client choose.

      2. I’m only referring to CSS associated with WordPress plugins & themes (of which only the PHP is under GPL be default). It’s kind of a grey area. The argument is that the PHP cannot be written without using WordPress code (functions, filters, hooks etc). Everything else (CSS, images, content) is independent and can be under a different license.

      You are correct with the a–d steps in that any work distributed under GPL must stay under the same license. This doesn’t mean the whole website needs to be under GPL though.

  12. 19

    amith vikram

    June 14, 2011 11:14 pm

    I have found a really useful article after a long time. Keep up the good work


  13. 20

    Great article!! Just one question regarding GPL2: Could I use a e.g. jQuery Plugin released under GPL2 in my own website without publishing the backend-code of my website? I do not modify the plugin so I think using this plugin does not affect the license of my whole webpage, right? The webproject should not be shared, it should just stay on my server.

    • 21

      David Bushell

      June 15, 2011 12:23 am

      Yes, you can use any GPL code (modified or not) and you don’t have to share it. You only have to release the source if you are redistributing that derivative work (for sale or free). Using it for yourself or for a client is not redistribution. Even if you did redistribute it you only have to release the plugin source code under GPL, not the rest of your website.

  14. 23

    Fantastic article, thank you for sharing – and keeping up in comments too!

  15. 24

    Lance Klass

    June 15, 2011 1:50 am

    One of the best and most exhaustive wrap-up’s I’ve come across on the subject of licensing, and your references and sources are most welcome. I work in the field of art licensing and a lot of what you’ve written is directly applicable to my field as well.

  16. 25

    Just a note for any professionals in New Zealand who are creating designs or artworks on commission.

    In New Zealand the copyright law dictates that the person commissioning the work owns the copyright, even if they never pay you.

    To get around this, you can claim copyright in your terms and conditions, and offer your client an exclusive license, subject to payment. This gives you a little more control when someone tries to do a runner with your idea. It also reduces the risk of a client taking you to court if you create a similar design, artwork, or idea in the future, as the NZ law currently makes it possible for someone to infringe on the copyright of a previous work that they themselves created.

  17. 26


    June 15, 2011 2:48 pm

    One thing I had been confused with is what defines “commercial”. My employer is obviously commercial. My freelance clients are commercial. My mother’s nonprofit is a client, so that seems commercial. What about my freelance portfolio site? Or a favor to a friend…

    • 27

      David Bushell

      June 15, 2011 11:59 pm

      All of those situations would be commercial (depending on the nature of the non-profit) if you were getting paid directly, or benefit in other ways; it’s commercial for your freelance portfolio website because it’s helping establish your business. A “favor to a friend” is too ambiguous, but if they’re using it for commercial purposes the onus is on them to attain the rights of usage.

      • 28

        thanks, re the nonprofit and noncommercial,

        My friend considers whether she can use her own computer, with Windows installed, at work, because she does not have the employer’s computer assigned. She is a personal finance counselor to the clients of the company she works for.

        The Windows is installed with the license, where is written that:
        “You may install and use two (2) copies of the software on your devices (a) to support your education; (b) in non-commercial research; or (c) to design, develop, test, and demonstrate software programs for the above purposes. Our Subscription and software are personal to you and may not be shared, transferred, resold, assigned or used to develop or maintain your own administrative or IT systems.”

        what if she would start to use her computer not only for research, etc…, but also at work to help her to show the clients the company PowerPoint presentations, for work e-mails, … please ?

  18. 29

    I am writing articles for Web, I usually get some inspiration from designing books. If I take some points (or) text from those books.. is it copyright violation?

    • 30

      David Bushell

      June 16, 2011 9:19 am

      If you’re simply copying text verbatim then that would be a copyright violation.

      If you’re reading a book then writing it in your own style (but based entirely on their ideas) that’s plagiarism. It isn’t illegal but very frown upon. If you read a very good idea and write it in your own style, simply reference the source and that’s fine. You could quote a few lines directly with an attribution and that would be fair.

      If you’re reading different sources to educate yourself and to make sure your article is factually correct then that is absolutely fine (and very good practice).

    • 32

      Depends on what you use as topics. Re-invent the wheel and evaluating old school ideas for re-sue should be fine. Pretending to have developed new ideas is a bit lame.

  19. 33

    Thanks good job!

  20. 34

    Sergiu Naslau

    June 16, 2011 2:47 am

    Really good article! This part has always hunted me: “what do I do if someone steals my work?”, ” What must I so they don’t do it?” etc. And even if I find piece here and there, I still have gaps. this article filled a big part of my curiosity. Thanks!

  21. 35

    Unfortunately all these copyright matters would work if they were enforcable. Which is the hardest part, if not the impossible part. Fees are low for web-labour while fees for reallife lawyers are steep and these need many hours.
    Better check the tools installed on your computer before complaining about people using the objects you created with these :) Likely 80-90% don’t own rights at all to using the software with which they try to earn money.

  22. 36

    Thanks David, you’ve covered a great topic in this article.

    Even with licensing and copyright notice, if another website posts our content on their website as their own without permission, what actions should a publisher take? Talking particularly about free image websites.

  23. 37

    Great article. I am a print designer, ditigal and screen printing. Does a customer paying for the finished product: ie printed t-shirt or banner, qualify as “work for hire”? We do not charge an art fee for anything yet customers feel they “own” what we design for their products. Similarily they will bring us products from other shops and want us to redesign the work, in this situation, we may use a similar layout (text, illustration, text), but change the illustration and typeface to something different.

  24. 38

    Unfortunately you left out the most important part – the difference between a copyright through the act of creation and one by registration. Any mention of copyright which does not emphasize that the word means right to permit copying, and does not direct people to the Copyright Registration procedure as provided by US law is utterly lacking in my view.

    Right at the top you pass up the opportunity to make clear just what “copy” right is about. You say “When we create something — let’s say a photograph — we own the copyright, which is our exclusive right as the author to own that work.” when, in fact, copyright is the right as owner of the work to permit copying.

    Until creators understand how important it is to get full value for permitting copying, they will continue to do destructive things like place their creative efforts into Larry Lessig’s miserable “Creative Commons” contract.

    What you create is your income stream. Unless you’re rolling in humongous quantities of cash for life, please stop giving it away. It makes it so very difficult for the common intellectual property thief to differentiate between what they can take and what they can’t, and it makes it really hard for those of us who make a living from our creations to combat their thefts.

    • 39

      Yeah, that is spot on. It is a bit self-inflicted Pax Americana :( Somehow people act as if archaic US laws are binding across the globe.
      Copyright indeed arranges circumstances for the rights for a creation tobe copied. Here in Netherlands the law is named Authorsright law and that is exactly what it does. Describe the rights of creators.

    • 40

      David Bushell

      June 18, 2011 3:29 am

      Thanks for the comment, but I’m not sure I understand your criticism here. I go on to explain how the owner can permit copying in the very next sentence: “We control who else can use our work and in what manner. For example, I could allow someone to print my photograph or adapt it in a piece of art.” Perhaps the emphasis on “copy” is lacking?

      Directly people to US procedures (or in fact any specific jurisdiction) wasn’t the point of this article. I’m not American, and this isn’t US centric. I tried to write something relevant to most people which is why I included the section on jurisdiction.

      While I understand people like yourself make a living from creative work, asking others to “please stop giving it away” seems a bit narcissistic. Copyright owners are entitled to give work away for free just as much as they’re entitled to charge for it. Removing a legal right solely to stop thievery is tackling the problem at completely the wrong angle.

    • 41

      elfpix wrote:
      “Unfortunately you left out the most important part – the difference between a copyright through the act of creation and one by registration. ”
      There is no difference – Registration of copyright is simply getting legal recognition of an existing copyright. Copyright is vested at the time of creation of the object, not granted later like a patent.

      “Any mention of copyright which does not emphasize that the word means right to permit copying, and does not direct people to the Copyright Registration procedure as provided by US law is utterly lacking in my view.”

      Copyright doesn’t mean the right to permit copying. It derives from the publishing term “copy”, as in “advertising copy”.

  25. 42

    This is a very well thought-out article on what is a very complex area of law. I think that creatives are more aware now than ever before of the importance of protecting their work or at least identifying when there may be issues to consider.

    Intellectual property is commonly the most valuable asset a business has and in the creative sector, awareness of these rights and how they operate and are transferred is vital. As with all legal matters, expert advice is essential and there are quite a few IP lawyers around who have a deep understanding of the creative sector and strategy.

  26. 43

    Nice to see all this in one place and explained clearly. Your description of Fair Use is slightly wrong – you said “Essentially, using copyrighted material is a legal right.” – No it isn’t. The right is Copyright – ‘Fair use’ is not a right, it is a defense, see
    This means that the burden of proof is on the user to prove their use was fair.

  27. 44

    Jonathan Fudem

    June 19, 2011 9:21 am

    This a fantastic article. You have deftly navigated a very challenging subject. I am often frustrated by the way copyright is treated online. Though, I fully support the intellectual property rights of artists and content generators, I feel that an unfair double standard is applied to content posted online.

    If I am walking on the sidewalk, or am part of a large public crowd, (in most cases) a photographer can take my picture, and print and sell an image containing my likeness without my consent. This policy makes sense, since I have willingly entered a public environment and should expect that I will be seen, recorded, and photographed. However, if that photographer chooses to post his/her photo online and make the image available for free public view, the photographer can choose to deny site visitors the right to post that image on their own websites, even if these websites grant attribution to the photographer and link back to the original. Growing up, I was always taught that the internet is a public place, and I feel it should be legislated as one. In my opinion choosing to post an image online for free is like walking into a public space, one should expect that others can copy and distribute your likeness or photograph.

    I’d be interested to hear if others agree with me or view copyright law differently.

    • 45

      Not so, publishing (making public) a photo doesn’t grant rights to viewers to republish. That is rather fundamental. If it is paid or not of importance to the rights.
      Also, if you likeness is in a photo and is a/the main subject in it the photographer needs to aquire your permission before publishing it.

  28. 46

    Such a great article. This answered a lot of questions I’ve had. Thanks!

  29. 47

    Julián Landerreche

    June 22, 2011 7:24 pm

    I mean, Copy’right’? Really?
    That privilege from 18th century still applies?

    Yes, sadly, copy’right’ is still a ‘valid’ privilege that can be enforced via legal team.
    Everyone has the right/liberty to copy whichever information gets to his brain, but the State and the “powers that be” suspend that people’s liberty, and grant the copy privilege to immortal corporations.

    Time to un-wash sombre brains.
    I’d suggest reading this blog:

  30. 48

    Richard - Accessible Web Design

    June 23, 2011 3:12 am

    Good article. Lots of useful information.

    One of the biggest frustrations I have with creative commons is when attribution is needed but the author doesn’t specify the form that the attribution should take. There doesn’t seem to be a default for this so it is very difficult to know if for example attribution in CSS or HTML code is sufficient. It is usually straightforward to give visible attribution for an image, but for example in the case of a font, it isn’t really practical to atttribute the author on every place where a font is used.

  31. 49

    Robin Jennings

    June 23, 2011 2:35 pm

    Well done for tackling such a complex and misunderstood topic.

    It is so vitally important that people understand the implications of using other peoples work and/ or people using your work.

    Freelancers can’t afford lawyers, small business can’t afford lawyers and lawyers can’t afford lawyers.

  32. 50

    I come across people all the time asking me to just take from this website or that website and put in mine. Some people are incredibly lazy and want to make money off other people’s work. I even had one person ask me to just take code from a website and use it in theirs. It really is sad and incredible! I actually just posted an article on my blog about this issue:

  33. 51

    Justine Doerner

    July 11, 2011 4:43 am

    What a great article!! Thanks much for summing it all up in such a great way, nice format and explaining it all like this. It will help many!!

  34. 52

    What is your take on substantially reworked art. Let’s say I use a stock object with copyright, then I rework this and let’s say I remove all color and make a black and white silhouette out of it. Then I touch it up so basically you can’t recognize the original.

    Would this be considered so re-worked that the original copyright doesn’t cover the new image?

  35. 53

    Hey, I have a question on logo copyright.

    I designed one logo for a company when I am working for them few month ago.
    Now I am no longer working with them and can I mentioned in my personal portfolio website that I designed them and of course give the copyright information refering back to the original company instead of claiming them to be mine.

    Can I do that?

    • 54

      So i have a question if I have a picture of my son and photochop into another picuter i got off the web, that has free downloads and print picture for own use at walmart is that legal

  36. 55

    I was in Paris a few months ago and took a couple pics of the Effiel Tower. I was excited to share with my friends on FB and THEN someone made a comment that it was not legal to post it on fb So now I am searching for answers ANY ONE have info for me

  37. 56

    What does it matter if the laymen are making less of the judicial decisions? For one, most people don’t want to go to jury duty. And secondly, if everybody involved agrees on ADR than their happy and their dispute gets taken care of.

  38. 57

    A few questions. I have a book which I copyrighted in the 1990’s under a different heading/name of the book. Of course I paid the fee and got the copyright number back etc.

    Since then I have changed the name of the book. A lot of editing has been done also, but its still the same story, only more of the story has been added between the beginning and the end of the book.

    Is my work still copyrighted due to the TWO things that I have mentioned above.

    Thanks for your eventual reply.

  39. 58

    I have a very interesting question and i beg you to answer, the question is: what happens if i liked a vectorized tree i saw in any stock photo website and i want to make mine, and in a kind of way it looks a lot like the one i saw in the website, am i violating copyright ? i mean we are totally refused to make something that looks alike other thing ? I am wondering this because i am planing to use it on a commercial proyect

  40. 59

    I want to cut out pieces of a Hello Kitty wrapping paper that I bought and use it in pendants that I would sell. Since I bought the wrapping paper, can I use it in a product that I will sell? Thank you for any information you can provide.

    • 60

      Christina Wilkinson

      April 16, 2012 8:54 pm

      Pam…. That is not legal because the reason someone would be purchasing your necklaces because of the print you are using on them. Those are recognizable and copyrighted by someone else.

  41. 61

    If you have camera phone self portrait images that were sent via text to another person, does this give them the “right” to do with the images as they please? Or do I still have the rights to the photos?

  42. 62

    I am a full-time employee for a company that uses my original content on the corporate website (informational articles, how-to pieces and promotional copy). I do not get a byline, and at the end of the article they have placed copyright notice symbol and the company name.
    There was no contracted agreement to transfer rights. They simply affixed the copyright symbol to my work.

    If I were to re-use these articles that I have written and revise, adapt, paraphrase, modify and in other ways make the article ‘like-new’, and redistribute the content elsewhere — for my own financial gain– with my own byline, am I infringing on the employer’s rights to my work?
    Do I have to cite the original,even if it’s my own work, and I’ve changed the content considerably?

    • 63

      Christina Wilkinson

      April 17, 2012 7:38 am


      The moment you become an employee, anything you create becomes the companies’ property unless they’ve allowed you to sign something that says you maintain the rights.

      And technically you would not keep derivative rights so any changes made would infringe upon your (former) employer.

  43. 64

    hey great article, but i got a quick qustion:

    I’m a manger of an online raido station, and we are thinking about have paid advertisement on are website, would we need a liscense for us to be able to do this?? and if we do what liscense would we need?

    only asking as you seem to know about this sort of thing

  44. 65

    I have had enquiries about licensing my art for mobile APPs. I have licensed my images to books, magazines, apparel, home decor and for very limited use on websites and I have a price structure in place for those usages. But I have no idea what this kind of thing is worth. If my images are the driver of sales for this APP I should ask for more. If my images supplement content and are not the driver of sales I should ask for less. The question is more or less of what? What would be considered industry standard pricing per image for an upfront fee and back-end royalty? I’m assuming that the standard 1-3 year limited time usage period applies to APPs.

  45. 66


    I had a question concerning copyright. More to the point of how far does copyright really go?

    I am currently writing a fantasy novel and for my novel I created a Runic font.

    What this means is, I created a combination symbols that look like Runes that can be used as letters when typing.

    When I was making my runes, I used a nice image I found online of already existing runes. I used photoshop to take the lines of every rune apart and reassembled them in a way I felt looks nicer – thus modifying the lines.

    I was wondering, is it possible there is copyright on the lines themselves? Even though readjusted them in such a fashion they no longer resemble the original ones? Or is the copyright aimed at the original picture only?

    What should I do?

    Thanks in advance!

  46. 67

    Michael Carroll

    March 14, 2012 5:53 am

    Thanks for the informative article on Creative Commons Copyright. I have a question if I may: Does an image with a CC license that includes a share alike clause mean that if I were to use the image as a CD cover, for instance, I would have to offer the CD for free or just that I cannot prevent or charge for any other use of that image, be it another band’s CD, etc? Thanks in advance for any thoughts.

  47. 68

    Rafal Chmiel

    March 24, 2012 4:36 pm

    Great article! Very useful. Thanks.

  48. 69

    I have a question, This is just for my own. I’m not gonna sell it or anything, but Is it illegal if I get a photo on google then print it on my shirt?

  49. 70

    Typo: “…and as such, anyone who breaks it cannot be [[help]] accountable under digital rights law.” under GPL paragraph 3

    Should be “held”.

    I’m just a grammar nazi :P

  50. 71

    So my question is can you legally remove the citation text from a GPLv3 licenced WordPress theme?

    I haven’t been able to find anything on GPL citing. When I want that I always use CC-something.

  51. 72

    Fletcher Beck

    July 13, 2012 1:57 am

    Quick question. A local magazine used a copy of my wedding invitation and a save the date card in a recent article without my permission and with no credit to the individual that I paid to make either of them.

    I am not happy about this. Do I have any legal recourse?

  52. 73

    Ok, so I designed the theme , custom PHP coding, custom CSS and graphic design.

    As I understand PHP code for the WordPress theme is GPL and my images and CSS can be copyrighted as commercial.

    Where do I get that license? (PHP=GPL + CSS/Images=commercial)

    I mean where is the actual text verbiage that I should include in theme. I’m looking for it and can’t find anywhere.

  53. 74

    In 2004 we formed an organization and named it. Before choosing a name and incorporating, we searched the Internet, made searches on the state comptroller’s site and made reasonably sure that no one was using the name that we chose. We incorporated as a 501c3 and the date of incorporating and of filing and getting things squared with the irs is 2005. I put up a website with our name on it and secured the website’s name was the same as our domain name. Recently, someone contacted me about selling our domain name. I thought about selling so we negotiated a bit and then, after a few exchanged emails, the person contacted me and told me that there was another organization that was called the same thing we are. I check into the site and saw that they formed their organization with OUR name in 2012. I’m mad and have contacted attorneys and am going through the copyright and trademark process–is there any way without using these attorneys to make people stop using our name? Thanks.

  54. 75

    Thanks for the info-rich article.

    Q: Do I have the right to use the image that I took of a firetruck or police car (without people) for commercial use (e.g. on a card game)?

  55. 76

    Calrissian Steele

    July 7, 2013 4:32 pm

    What about clips of a movie that are altered? Is that fair use?
    Like if it’s some footage but the sound has been changed to something that was yours?

    My example is footage of Jigsaw (from the Saw movies) and it is from the movies, but the voice was done by me and what I am saying was made up on my own. Is that ok or is that still a problem?

  56. 77

    My doubt may sound simple..

    I am writing a software and want to publish it as open source under MIT license.
    Can I achieve that by using the MIT license text in my source code and changing few places like author name and copyright year?
    Or Do I need to apply somewhere with my code to get the license approved as we do for patenting?

    Please reply. Thanks!

  57. 78

    If there is a copyrighted picture of me, and I didn’t sign a release for it … can I, for example, recolor it and use it as I want?

  58. 79

    Bruce McKillip

    January 29, 2014 12:10 am

    As something of an old-timer I’m quite new to the concept of an online portfolio and so, not only am I not sure of my copyright obligations, I don’t even know where to look for answers. Most readers of this blog probably know the answer to these questions, can someone help?

    I’ve recently created an online portfolio on Behance. Most of the work I have posted are samples of pages from printed books that I designed while a full-time employee of the publishing companies. I assume that I have the right to post this work without permission from the book publishers so long as it is exclusively in the context of my design portfolio. Please correct me if I’m wrong, or if it’s more complicated than that?

    What may be more complicated: I have also uploaded some screens from some animated CD-ROM activities, and a video of one in action. The Flash developer has assured me he has no issues with this. However I would like to add the audio track that goes with the animation, and this is a copyrighted music recording, for which the publisher secured the rights to use in the animation. Would this be considered fair use to include in my portfolio, or do I need to seek permission from the copyright holder for the music recording?

  59. 80

    Great article David.


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