Using SEO and Staying Out of Copyright Jail

By Peter Kent

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 dont 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 However, some rare exceptions exist. A government department may hold donated materials that were originally copyright protected, and continue to hold the copyright. It may commission a private individual or company to create a work or publish the work under another arrangement, and that person or company may hold the copyright. And works created by the National Technical Information Service or the United States Postal Service may be copyright protected.

If it’s “donated,” you can use it

Sometimes people simply give away their work — they “donate” it in one of two ways. In some cases, a work may be given to the public domain, which means the author relinquishes all rights to the work. In other cases, the author may simply allow the use of the work, but retain copyright. For instance, sometimes you see statements such as this on the copyright chart:

Chart may be freely duplicated or linked to for nonprofit purposes. No permission needed. Please include Web address on all reproductions of chart so recipients know where to find any updates.

The author has allowed anyone to use the chart under certain conditions: The use must be “nonprofit” (although this term is rather ambiguous, you can assume that at the very least it means you can’t print the chart and sell it), and the address of the original chart should be included.

Very common today is Creative Commons, “a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools.” They provide a variety of licenses that allow creators to license their works for “free” with various limitations.

It’s only fair — fair use explained

You can copy parts of a copyrighted work and use them on your site, under an exclusion known as fair use. The only problem with fair use is that one man’s fair use is another man’s plagiarism. In other words, there are no hard and fast rules as to what fair use means.

Here’s a copyright-free explanation directly from the U.S. Copyright Office Web site:

Under the fair use doctrine of the U.S. copyright statute, it is permissible to use limited portions of a work including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports. There are no legal rules permitting the use of a specific number of words, a certain number of musical notes, or percentage of a work. Whether a particular use qualifies as fair use depends on all the circumstances. See FL 102, Fair Use, and Circular 21, Reproductions of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians.

The fair use exception isn’t, in most cases, terribly useful for most people, because you can’t just take huge gobs of the work and drop them into your site. However, you can weave quotes from copyrighted works (make sure that you properly cite your sources) into original material you’ve written.

Watch out for copyright trolls!

In recent years a new scam has arisen, employing the U.S. legal system to do its dirty work: copyright trolling. It works like this:

  1. The troll creates a work of some kind (such as website privacy policies) and seeds the Internet with that work (by placing the privacy policy into libraries of free legal documents).

  2. The troll waits for people to pick up the document and place it into their sites, and then figures out which of those people are likely to have money.

  3. The troll sues the unwitting victim for $250,000.

    How does the troll know who’s using the documents? By searching, of course, using either the major search engines or a specialty system, such as Copyscape.com.

It will cost the defendants so much money to defend against the lawsuit that eventually they’ll be happy to pay the troll $50,000 just to go away. (In fact, some attorneys call this go away money.)

Search for the term copyright troll and be prepared to be amazed (and disgusted).