Photos, articles, video, or music you find online--how (if at all) can you use them? And how protected are your own or your organization's original works?
According to attorney Matthew Levy, copyright protection is based on centuries-old law, with some twists for the digital age. Here are a few points he made at a presentation at the Alexandria Small Business Center and in some follow-up conversation. (Note his information represents his own views and does not constitute legal advice.)
What do copyrights cover?
Copyrights cover almost anything created--including writing, photographs, music, film/video, performances. You should assume that anything you see online is covered by copyright unless specifically stated otherwise.
Do I have to register a work to be copyrighted?
Copyright is automatic. Registration through the Copyright office of the Library of Congress allows you to sue for higher damages for infringement should it occur. Think of it this way: You probably want to register your book or script opus, but not your last blog post. Similarly, you probably wouldn't register a work that you do not mind being shared without remuneration (see below).
How do copyrights apply to social media?
It's complicated, as you probably expected. As an example: a meme. As Levy pointed out, Dos Equis is not going to sue when thousands of potential customers circulate their own memes with the Dos Equis man. He noted there have been some concerns about Pinterest, which is based on users posting photos that appeal to them from elsewhere rather than creating their own content. (Pinterest's copyright policy is here.)
What about links versus excerpts?
Levy said a link to someone's copyrighted material should be okay. A short excerpt with a link probably constitutes fair use, but he recommends not making any assumptions. When in doubt, ask.
In my own experience, I see a distinction in the copyright holder's willingness to allow an excerpt when he/she/it is monetizing the content versus the organization that wants to "get the word out" about its issues. Likewise, I have seen a difference when I have wanted to use the material in something distributed for free versus produced to sell.
Does an email constitute permission to use someone's copyrighted material?
If you see something online that you would like to use in your own online or other material, email the copyright holder to explain your intention. A reply email of consent constitutes agreement by the copyright holder.
What happens if my organization inadvertently posts copyrighted material?
If you publish material from many disparate contributors (for example, guest bloggers), Levy suggests registering as a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) agent. Developed to protect internet Service Providers, you are required to take down the material as soon as you learn about it and to notify the copyright infringer, but your organization is not liable.
What are other resources?
This summary only touches the surface of what is involved in copyrights today. If your situation is complicated, consult a copyright attorney.