Content is considered “copyright-free” when it’s no longer protected by the Copyright Act.
Now that we’re in the digital era, producing content on a regular basis has become an essential, recurring task for businesses (and individuals) wanting to promote their products, services or offerings.
This article explains how to tell whether content is copyright-free and how to use copyright-free and copyright-protected content effectively.
There are currently about 2 billion websites in the world, with new ones being added every second.
Numbering in the millions and billions, content can be found on personal and professional sites in the form of intranets, blogs, Wiki pages, home pages, apps and other microsites.
That content is distributed across social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, etc.
It can be tempting for users to take advantage of these nearly limitless horizons by creating or simply sharing content, whether it’s text, music, images, photos, graphics or videos.
Is it legal?
Can you use the content you find online without having to pay royalties, subscriptions or other fees and without violating copyright legislation?
The obvious way to avoid this question is to create your own texts, music, photos or videos. But, of course, it’s not so easy or practical to produce compelling content yourself.
An alternative to creating original content is to find existing content that can be licensed or is copyright-free.
So the answer to our original question is yes, it’s possible to reuse content legally if it’s already in the public domain or if the copyright owners allow you to use it.
Is it copyrighted?
For many people, there’s some confusion between content protected by copyright and content in another category that could be perceived as not protected by copyright.
Often, what’s referred to as copyright-free content is actually copyright-protected content used under licence. It’s up to the copyright owners to decide whether their content can be used.
Keep in mind that the vast majority of content is NOT copyright-free. However, it’s possible that the rights to the content have been “freed” or released by the copyright owners.
Free or not?
The apparent paradox we just mentioned needs to be clarified: the content itself remains copyright-protected even though permission to use the content may have been granted.
The content therefore remains covered by the Copyright Act and specific uses may be allowed or prohibited by the copyright owners.
Unless you’ve been given permission, you can’t legally use the content.
The Copyright Act automatically protects content and any communication of that content, regardless of the medium (PowerPoint, PDF, websites, etc.) and the distribution method. Reproducing or redistributing copyrighted content usually requires authorization, whether it’s being distributed on a public website or a limited-access site (intranet, online course). [Translation]
— HEC Montréal, Documents libres de droit (in French)
How can you tell if content is copyright-free?
For images, you can use Google’s advanced search options by dragging or uploading an image file to the search bar. Google will tell you the image’s origin, which may enable you to find the information about whether the image is copyright-free.
Let’s be clear! Even if you don’t see a specific warning that rights are reserved, always assume that the content is protected by the Copyright Act because copyright applies automatically as soon as the content is stored on physical media (“fixed in any material form”). In other words, content is copyrighted as soon as it goes from simply being a concept to actually being physically realized.
Where to find free content
There are various ways to find content that you can use legally without having to pay royalties, subscriptions or other fees.
Copyright doesn’t last forever and eventually expires. The public domain refers to any content that has become copyright-free a certain number of years after its creator’s death. In Canada, content enters the public domain 50 years after the author’s death.*
That means you’ll need to do some research into the content you’re interested in. Is the author still living and, if not, how long ago did they pass away?
*Copyright protection on creative content – which currently lasts for the author’s lifetime plus 50 years – will soon be lengthened by 20 years to cover the author’s lifetime plus 70 years after their death.
An image bank is a database containing mainly photos (“stock photos”), reproductions and illustrations. The content they offer may be available for a fee or free of charge, usually with a licence under very specific terms and conditions.
When using this solution, you need to read the terms and conditions for every selected image or category. For example, certain images may be used to illustrate a social media post, others may be used only for editorial content while some images are authorized for commercial use such as advertising.
Montreal’s French-language school board (CSSDM) has prepared a handy list of 10 free or royalty-free image banks, including Pixabay, Unsplash, Pexels and Freeimages. The article is in French but the image bank sites are available in English.
Creative Commons (CC) licences allow a wide range of content to be used under specific terms and conditions. In most cases, the content creators retain certain rights that correspond to the type of licence.
Once again, it’s important to carefully review the licence associated with the content to determine which rights may or may not be granted.
Only the “CC0” licence, which is quite rare, actually releases the content from all copyright, even the content creator’s right to be credited as the author.
- Read more: What is Creative Commons?
How to use third-party content
The best way to use content created by others is to ask their permission.
Let’s say you found the perfect music to go with the video you’re putting together.
Look for the music creator’s name and email address on the website or complete the contact form in order to describe your project and simply ask for authorization to use the content. Give as many details as possible about how you intend to use it (commercial or non-commercial purposes, method used for distribution, expected audience, etc.).
Depending on your type of use, the creator may give you permission without asking for royalties. They may set a few conditions such as including a link to their website or YouTube channel. You’ve got nothing to lose by asking!
What if you don’t get a reply?
Unfortunately, you can’t necessarily assume that the creator has given you the right to reproduce or distribute their content.
When in doubt, don’t!