Business

The Potential Legal Consequences of ‘Borrowing’ Content

We share everything you need to consider before installing that plugin that will populate your site with others’ content.

Image: Chalabala

We all know how important it is to generate regular and relevant content on our websites to make sure the site ranks well and drives traffic. Coming up with something original to publish isn’t that easy, and sourcing good content from other places is an option many websites owners opt for.

However, there are some legal issues that you need to be aware of if you choose to start ‘borrowing’ content from around the web. This article helps explain what you need to consider before installing that plugin that will populate your site with others’ content.

Scraper and Crawler Plugins

I want to introduce you to Bill. He’s starting a new website from scratch and he’s started writing some blog posts to get people interested in his site. He’s finding that it’s taking him a while to write stuff worth publishing, he’d be lucky to get a post out once a month because he’s too busy with everything else!

He’s out grabbing a coffee with a friend one day who tells him he should just ‘borrow’ good content from around the web. “It’s free and everyone does it,” his friend tells him. Bill rushes back to his studio and finds a plugin for his WordPress site that makes it super easy to copy and paste from other awesome sites.

Before we get into the legal stuff, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. These plugins can go by many names: crawlers, grabbers, scrapers, importers and so on but when it boils down to it, they all do the same thing: copy and paste.

There are plenty of legitimate uses for these types of plugins. For example, you might want to share your own content on multiple websites after it’s already been published. You might also want to copy your own content quickly and easily, without doing it manually, which can take forever if you’re trying to copy heaps of posts.

The point here is that it’s your content. You have the right to copy and paste and share and distribute, and unless you give anyone else permission, no one else can.

You’re probably wondering then how websites like Pinterest get away with it. Well, those sites aren’t actually doing the copying and pasting; the users are.

There may also be plugins that use other sites’ APIs legitimately. For example, someone might build a plugin that uses YouTube’s API to allow users to drive traffic to their site which provides a service that people are willing to pay for or that presents advertising opportunities. The API comes with its own terms and conditions which the plugin creator must not violate.

Even then, what’s worth noting here also is that even if the plugin or application that uses an API follows the rules, your use of that plugin that uses an API on your own site might have its own legal issues.

The issue around the legitimacy of facilitating this type of activity is a topic for another day save to say if there are any complaints from content owners, the content must be removed by the website owner.

Anyhow, back to Bill. He’s installed this plugin; it’s working a treat and he’s loving all the attention he’s getting. All this new content has even increased his conversions by getting more sales from converting visitors to buyers. Everything is going great, until one day… he receives a letter from an attorney saying something about copyright infringement.

Legal Issues with Copying and Pasting

There are two main legal issues we’re going to talk about here that anyone who uses scrapers, crawlers, and other similar plugins: copyright infringement and breach of contract.

Copyright Infringement

Bill’s reading the letter from the attorney and he’s thinking that he’s sourced the content from a publicly available website and he’s not charging anyone to view it and so how could that be copyright infringement!? He does some searching and finds an article about copyright:

Copyright: Photodune
Copyright: Photodune

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a legal concept that gives the author or creator of an original work the exclusive right to do certain things with that original work. The copyright holder has the right to choose if anyone else can use, adapt or resell their work and has the right to be credited for that work.

Copyright protection is principally given to works that are literary, dramatic, artistic and musical works, cinematograph film, and television and sound broadcasts.

Only the copyright holder of a work may do these things:

  1. Make copies of the work and distribute it.
  2. Create derivative works or alter the work.
  3. Sell the work in either its original version or in an altered form.

The creator of a work retains copyright to it even if they do not expressly tell you so.

How is Copyright Infringed?

Copyright is typically infringed if a work protected by copyright, or a “substantial part” of it, is used without permission in one of the ways exclusively reserved to the copyright owner. But in some countries there are special exceptions which allow copyright material to be used without it being an infringement – for example, “fair use” exceptions.

When assessing whether a part of someone else’s work that you wish to use is a “substantial part,” you need to consider whether it is an important, essential or distinctive part. The part does not have to be a large part to be “substantial”. It is the “quality” of the part, not the “quantity” that is important. Even if you change or add to a part of someone else’s work, you can infringe copyright if the part that you use is an important, essential or distinctive part of the original work.

A person who infringes copyright can be sued by the copyright owner and taken to court. A court can order a range of things, including that the infringer pay compensation and pay the copyright owner’s costs. In some cases, a person who infringes copyright can be charged, and can be ordered to pay a fine or, in serious cases, can be imprisoned.

Examples of copyright infringement include:

  1. Making unauthorized copies of a work protected by copyright.
  2. Using a song in a video without the permission of the owner of the recording and the songwriter.
  3. Publishing someone else’s work without their permission, even if you correctly credit them.

At this point Bill’s getting a little stressed. He sourced his plugin from a legitimate marketplace. He’s using content available for free and publishing it with a credit back to the original source. All he’s trying to do is drive some good quality traffic to his site to help with his sales. He didn’t set out to breach anyone’s copyright and now he’s got attorneys after him. Drops mic…

Breach of Contract

The letter Bill receives also mentions something about a breach of contract. Bill’s thinking, ‘I never signed no contract.‘ Bill does some more searching and finds out that what may not be obvious to some is that each time he visits a website he’s effectively entering into a contract, they’re called the user terms.

The user terms apply whether you like it or not and there are consequences for users who do not follow them. If you do something that isn’t allowed, you could be breaching the contract with the website owner.

Bill goes and reads the user terms of one of his favourite sites that he ‘borrows’ content from and it says that no one is allowed to copy any content from the site without permission.

Bill is now distressed. He deactivates his plugin, removes all the content from his site that’s not his and sends a letter back to the lawyers apologizing and telling them everything is now fixed.

He never hears from them again.

And so the moral is…

There are legitimate uses for these types of plugins. But if you’re using it to copy other’s content – ask them first. There are sites that may be happy to have their content distributed on other sites with the appropriate link back. So…think twice before installing that plugin that scrapes, crawls, grabs, imports other people’s content without first asking permission.

Otherwise, it could be copyright infringement and a breach of contract. Always read the user terms of the site to understand how you can use content and if you want to use someone else’s content always get their permission first.

This article was originally published in August 2016. 


Peter Tsipas

About the Author Peter Tsipas

I’m a lawyer, director and mentor. I like to learn, grow and contribute. Most of the time I'm lawyering here at Envato and like to keep busy with a few side projects too!