Using SEO and Staying Out of Copyright Jail
SEO is very important for your content, but you don’t want to get yourself in trouble. You can get into trouble if you take copyrighted materials without permission. Therefore, it’s important that you understand a few copyright basics.
Many people think that they’re allowed to take and use pretty much anything they find, especially if it can be found on the Internet. Are you wondering, “hey, site X has some great articles related to my business, would they help me in the search engines if I put them on my site?” Well, they might, but it wouldn’t be legal!
Although you can do this and may get away with it, you should be aware that you don’t have the right to do this. It is, to put it bluntly, plagiarism. Well, more than that; it’s theft. It’s illegal, and the owner of the material has the right to sue you. Whether it’s text, images, sounds, or whatever, if someone else created it, you don’t own it!
This summary goes into a little more detail about the four exceptions:
If it’s really old, you can use it.
If the guvmint created it, you can use it.
If it’s “donated,” you can use it.
It’s only fair — fair use explained.
If it’s really old, you can use it
In some cases in which you find old works that would be appropriate for your site, you can simply take content and do what you want with it. In the old days, copyrights didn’t last very long, a real contrast with the situation today. (The following description relates to U.S. copyright law; each country’s laws vary.)
Copyright is currently intended to allow the creator to profit from a work. For works created after January 1, 1978, you probably won’t be alive when copyright expires on such works. Let’s just say, by way of example, that the copyright on a work created on January 1, 1978, by a 19-year-old writer who manages to live to 89, will expire in the year 2118. (No, that’s not a joke.)
Just to complicate things a little, if the work was published anonymously, pseudonymously (in other words, under a fictitious name) or as a “work for hire,” then the term is 95 years after publication, or 120 years after creation.
The situation for works created before 1978 gets complicated because the law kept changing and seems to have been intended to confuse. Anything copyrighted (either published or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) after January 1, 1964, is out of bounds for the foreseeable future (at least until 2059).
Works copyrighted before 1922 are in the public domain; that is, they have lost all copyright protection.
For works published between 1922 amd 1963, it depends on whether the copyright was renewed:
If the copyright wasn’t renewed, it’s in the public domain.
If the copyright was renewed, it’s protected for 95 years after date of publication (which means that the earliest items soon will be in the public domain).
In those days, works had to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office and renewed to get the full term of protection; as mentioned, registration, at any point, is no longer necessary.) If copyright was renewed, the work may still be protected. Thus most works published between these dates have actually lost copyright protection (renewals being relatively rare) — the problem is figuring out which works.
If you really want to use a particular work, you can figure all this out. You need to contact the Copyright Office to see if the work was renewed, though unfortunately this means you have to do the work yourself at its offices in Washington, D.C., or pay $75 per hour for a manual search. (You can search online for works registered after 1978.)
You can assume that works copyrighted during or before 1922 are not copyright protected anymore. You can take ‘em and use ‘em for whatever you want. After 1978 you can assume they are copyright protected. Between those dates… it depends.
Does this help you? If you have a site selling cell phones, it almost certainly does not help you. If you have a site related to Victorian poetry, travelogues, or herbal medicine, it may be useful.
This is a very quick rundown of copyright law, which should be sufficient for most people’s purposes. However, there are many details that aren’t covered in this article — titles, short phrases, and slogans can’t be copyrighted, for instance. For the full details, visit the