When it comes to repurposing content, the sheer scale and freedom of the internet can make it feel like anything goes. The barrage of retweeting, reblogging and reposting demands a constant supply of new content, with little regard to where it actually comes from.

Online businesses can easily fall into the trap of using resources they have no rights to, forgetting the little person (or big business) who made the image or video they’re sharing on. The result could be a swift takedown request or even the threat of litigation, with every blog post under threat.

As a photographer, I know the language of ‘fair use’ and ‘attribution’ can be confusing even when you want to do the right thing. Thankfully there are some quick tips on how to navigate online copyright and antiquated domestic laws, and make sure you end up in the right.

Use Creative Commons licensed images

While copyright still applies online, the difference in regulations can make it hard to enforce rights, or even make them clear. Many content creators have turned to a system created for the internet: Creative Commons. This open and public service provides copy protection with a number of flexible licenses, making it clear what you are allowed to do with a piece of content.

Creative Commons licenses consist of several letter combinations. The least restrictive is CC BY (Attribution), which lets users republish, alter or sell your content, as long as they give you credit. The most restrictive is CC BY-NC-ND (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs), which allows you to download and share works as long as you credit the creator, but not to use them commercially or make any alterations.

If this all sounds confusing, Creative Commons has a simple guide explaining every license combination available. Alternatively use their search engine portal for images, video and music. The options allow you to easily narrow your searches down to resources for commercial use and those that you are allowed to edit.

Be careful with GIFs

However you pronounce them, GIFs are the internet’s favorite currency. Providing the rich media of video without the noise of autoplaying videos, GIFs are perfect for mobile or desktop. Little wonder then that businesses often try to jump on the bandwagon, loading blog posts with the latest finds from Tumblr or GIPHY.

If regular images are an internet minefield, GIFs are a game of Russian roulette. If the GIF is from a popular movie or TV show (and they often are), you technically need the permission of all the participants, and potentially the creators of the show. This obviously isn’t realistic, but it reflects on how outdated many national and international copyright laws are.

Ultimately it comes down to a couple of key principles: the USA’s Fair Use doctrine and Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The former enshrines a four point checklist for online copyright:

  1. What’s the purpose of the content (is it commercial or for nonprofit purposes)?
  2. What’s the nature of the copyrighted content?
  3. How substantial is the content compared to the entirety of the original work?
  4. What is the potential effect of the content on the market for the original?

The DMCA provides an extra layer of protection, guaranteeing that as long as websites offer a means of contact for quick and easy removal of copyrighted content, they won’t be held liable. Of course, all of this only applies to the US, with different laws in every territory. Given that a majority of websites and traffic comes from the US, however, they are fairly safe to stick to.

Still, the legality is slightly confusing and largely down to circumstance. Rumors abound that the web’s largest GIF website, GIPHY, has struck deals with content creators to avoid legal problems. But as with YouTube below, content creators can still get things removed if they really want to. To be safe, stick to the big GIF websites, and provide original attribution at all times.

Embedded YouTube videos are usually ok

Embedding video content has always been a popular option to keep people on a page, and nowhere makes it easier than YouTube. However, the fact that anyone can upload to YouTube means that you could potentially embed any kind of content. That could get messy if it turns out the uploader didn’t have the rights to use that content.

Mostly this is common sense: only use footage from official channels, or where you’re sure it was created by the uploader. It may be safe to use copyrighted footage—online newspapers often do so, as the liability is on YouTube and the uploader—but I’d advise that you steer clear.

There’s plenty of original content, and you can always link to a specific time in the video if the precise clip you want isn’t available. Plus YouTube provides creators with the tools to prevent embedding if they so choose, so there can be no mistake about whether it’s allowed.

Invest in original content

If you want to avoid al the potential pitfalls, invest a bit of time and money. Online stock image libraries provide access to photos and vector images for every occasion. Resources such as iStockphoto and Shutterstock allow you to buy a set of any images for a nominal fee, and are particularly useful for magazine projects where you need a clean, high resolution image.

Alternatively, you can always do it yourself! Any content you and your employees create is naturally fair game, as is any you commission (under the right pretenses). With phone cameras getting better, anyone can step out of the office and find something to fill out a post. You could even get the office to pose for some classic stock photo awkwardness.

Author: Joe Josland is a Kent wedding photographer and the founder of JJosland Photography, undertaking documentary style shoots in Kent and across the UK. His unique natural style aims to replicate the story of a wedding day or engagement event through pictures, capturing the moments of joy that matter most. You can find him on Twitter here and on Instagram here.