My heart explodes for the new Motorola Zine ZN5
photo: kevin dooley

How would you feel if someone stole your hard work and claimed it as their own? What would you do? Just how far would you go to protect your livelihood? As a small business owner, these are questions you should ask yourself whenever you put together materials to market your business. If you’re not careful, you may end up stealing someone else’s work. Not only would that be unethical, you’d be opening yourself up to a lawsuit to boot.

What Is a Copyright?

Copyright is a legal term for the right to reproduce, license, distribute, sell, or otherwise exploit a creative work, including writing, images, and sounds. In the U.S., the copyright for any creative work is owned by the creator by default. Legally speaking, every piece of writing, every image, and every sound you see or hear on the Internet, television, or radio is owned by someone. Even brands and slogans are legally protected.

How Do You Steal Artists’ Work?

You don’t need to download a bootleg song or movie to steal an artist’s work. You steal an artists’ work whenever you use it without permission. If you copy and paste a piece of writing or an image, you are stealing it. The only exception to this rule is when the work is offered for public use by the creator of the work. These pieces are usually identified as “free use.” Often, works available for free use are only available to those who are not using them for profitable purposes. That means you can’t use it to market your business.

What Consequences Could You Face?

If you get caught stealing an artist’s work–even if you didn’t know you were doing it–then you could face a lawsuit. A lawsuit will generate negative publicity for you and your business. A lawsuit–whether you win or lose–could damage your reputation. Artists and their supporters may choose to boycott your business. If you lose the lawsuit, then you’ll also face stiff penalties that are much more expensive than the piece of work you pilfered.

How Do You Use Artists’ Work Fairly?

The safest way to use artists’ work is to ask for permission to use it or to have the work you need produced on commission. If you get permission to use a work, then you’ll be granted a license for using that work. If you pay to have the work produced on commission, then you will be paying more, but you’ll become the owner of the copyright on that work. There are a variety of sites that will connect you with writers, artists, graphic designers, voice personalities, or musicians. Once you come to terms with the creator and pay them for their work, you can use it according to the terms of your contract with a clear conscience.

What Is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that showcases the work of visual artists while providing structural support for the sale and distribution of their digital works. They also offer people who are looking to purchase visual content a way to look for work that is available for purchase. Creative Commons is one of many organizations that helps artists connect with customers to their mutual benefit.

The Bottom Line

Small business owners need to market their businesses. That’s a given. But you also have to understand that writers, artists, and graphic designers are in business, too. Their creative productions are their products. That’s how they make their living. You wouldn’t want them to steal from you, so you shouldn’t be stealing from them. Give artists their due. They deserve it!


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