4 Tips for Using Other People’s Content Legally

It can be a challenge for any small-business owner who hosts a blog to keep coming up with fresh content. First, there’s finding time to create posts on a daily, twice-weekly, or once-a-week basis. Second, sooner or later you may struggle to find new things to say about your specialty or niche product.

Fortunately, there are ways to reproduce content from other websites — an individual’s or a small business’s like your own — that are fair and give credit where credit is due.

What Constitutes Fair Use?

Section 107 of the U.S. copyright law lists the following factors “to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair”:

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

The U.S. Copyright Office also notes: “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.”

If you have specific legal questions, it’s a good idea to consult an intellectual property lawyer.

How May I Use the Content?

Here are four tips for legally using content you find online.

1. Explain complex subjects. Marketplace conditions change frequently. For some of your customers, new developments may be bewildering — and may even cost them money if they’re unaware of the repercussions. You can provide a value-added service to your readers and other visitors to your website by breaking down a complicated subject related to your field and describing why it’s important to them.

Start by searching for blog posts or news articles that discuss a specific situation (a new law, product launch, etc.). After citing your source — including a link back to the original content — enlighten people on how this change affects them. Provide direction on how they can learn more about the subject.

2. Share your take. Clarifying a complex subject is helpful, but you can go a step further by sharing your views on the issue. Summarize what appears on another blog post — once again, include a link to the original source — and then add your own expert commentary. Do you think the latest development is good or bad for your industry? Why? What do you think it means for businesses in general and for specialty businesses in particular? You may quote from various other blogs (with links to them) while providing useful comments or critiques.

Keep your audience in mind. It’s unlikely that your customers are looking for sensationalistic or off-the-wall opinions. It doesn’t help your professional reputation to stir up controversy for the sake of controversy. But by respectfully making a counterargument to what blogger X has to say, you’re expanding the discussion and probably drawing in more visitors who are interested in the (polite) discussion.

3. Compile news items or make a “best of” list. Many bloggers vary their content by aggregating items they find elsewhere, offering a quick summary of information while sharing links to the original posts. Say, for example, you’re in the food industry and there’s been a recall of canned fruit. By gathering four or five links that give your customers and other readers more information and advice about what to do next, you’re providing a genuine service to others in your industry.

This approach — also called “content curation” — not only provides value, but also helps to establish you as a thought leader in your field, someone who people can turn to when news breaks. Essentially, you’re separating the wheat from the chaff for the benefit of your network. If you do this on a regular basis, your followers will quickly get into the habit of checking in for the latest updates.

Aggregated content doesn’t always have to focus on weighty or serious issues. As Lisa Barone, vice president of strategy for Overit suggests, an alternate strategy is to put together “a list of fun things you simply want to share with your audience.”

4. Be an ethical content aggregator. Kimberley Isbell, an intellectual property attorney, recommends the following best practices for being an ethical content aggregator:

  • Reproduce only those portions of a headline or an article that are necessary to make your point or to identify the story. Do not reproduce the story in its entirety.
  • Try not to use all, or even the majority, of articles available from a single source.
  • Prominently identify the source of the article.
  • Whenever possible, link to the original source of the article.
  • Whenever possible, provide context or commentary for the material you use.

Online content-wise, it sometimes seems like the Wild West out there. But if you respect other people’s posts — and share links to your sources — you can avoid all the shootin’ and hollerin’ and rightly stake your business’s claim.

About Lee Polevoi

Lee Polevoi is an award-winning freelance copywriter and editor and a former Senior Writer for Vistage International, a global membership organization of chief executive officers. He writes frequently on issues and challenges faced by U.S. small businesses.
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