Intellectual Property Law

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I am a retired senior in Florida, living on a pension; I belong

to a ladies club, a...
I am a retired senior in Florida, living on a pension; I belong to a ladies club, a nonprofit organization whose purpose is solely social. This group has existed more than 40 years and the previous newsletter editor had the position for a decade. She moved away and I took over the newsletter and continue using pretty much the same format and methods she used. To add visual appeal I add a little bit of clip art I pick up on the internet. When searching for art on a particular subject (e.g. card games, reading, photography) I look for the word "free" and use anything appropriate that I find - either straight or with some modification.

I understand that "free" does not always mean "free" and that there are procedures one should follow to register for the right to use clip art from certain places - on the other hand some word processing programs come with a supply of their own clip art, indicating permission to use freely. It can be confusing. I would never swipe an illustration to use in something I was going to publish for profit or to use in something with distribution to the general public.

But this is a small group of little old ladies who need to know about upcoming activities and what other club members have been up to. I will do whatever I can to decorate this small distribution, private news bulletin to keep it looking like a legal document (no offense intended) and make it more inviting to read.

How much trouble, really, could I personally get in for using clipart for the above-described purpose that is posted where anyone can get it? Would there be any warning in the (unlikely) event that my newsletter came to the attention of someone connected with clipart I have used? What if I modified a clipart sufficiently that it looked more like it was originally my work? The kind of thing I am talking about is not complicated or detailed - take a picture for instance of the sun, a yellow ball with a face on it with rays sticking out all around - dozens of variations are available and,yes, i could draw one myself, but there is that really cute one right in front of me for the taking.
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7/25/2013
Attorney Wayne
Category: Intellectual Property Law
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Hello. Thanks for contacting us.

 

You show wisdom of the ages by simply asking the question. In a theoretical way, any item used can lead to losing a lawsuit for infringement, unless there exists written authorization from the copyright holder (written authorization could include following rules on the web, such as is used for things like "creative commons licenses" and their ilk).

 

You are right that a proclamation of free does not mean it is. And that means that each infringing copy could end up costing thousands of dollars in court-ordered damages for use.

 

Here are some ways to avoid:

 

(1) Use graphics from programs that the creator of the publication has licensed. Microsoft's Word and Publisher, for instance, have extensive "clipart" collections that come as part of the package when you buy the software.

 

(2) Use items at a "creative commons" -- where one registers and agrees to follow the attribution guidelines presented at the site. Unless the creative commons site is fraudulent (and essentially stealing content from others without authorization or payment), then following the procedures specified is pretty safe (although, as indicated, if the site itself is fraudulent, there could be liability -- rare, but possible).

 

(3) License a graphic cheaply. Some websites will sell licenses to use certain graphics at low prices. For a few dollars it is possible to find what is wanted, and get a written authorization to protect against possible infringement claims (which works, as with item 2, if the site itself is not fraudulent -- rare but possible!)

 

I wish you and the club every success!

Attorney Wayne
Category: Intellectual Property Law
Satisfied Customers: 1,506
Experience: Practicing Law Since 2000
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Customer reply replied 4 years ago

thousands of dollars for each infringement - would anybody really go after a woman in her 70s for a little private newsletter? what if they did and she has no savings - would the put her in jail? for how long? seriously, how likely is it that anything like that could happen anyway?


 


I guess the fact that the clipart that comes with Word etc is both limited and uninspiring is not really to be considered part of the issue - the fact that I could use inferior clipart for no charge while other sources provide much nicer and more appropriate illustrations that I can easily access but am really not supposed to creates an ethical conflict for me.


 


what i suppose i could do is get the club to fund whatever membership or registration fee that a downloadable clipart site might charge and try to confine myself to that source.


 


so anyway thank you for responding - i guess i pretty much already knew what you were going to say, but it was my first foray into buying an answer on this site. so what next.

Hi Again.

Well, I can only provide information about the law. I can't guess or predict how others might react -- that would not be information, but conjecture and guessing.

People often get surprised when their common sense or gut reaction does not pan out in a legal arena. Even more so these days, as infringement claims often are systematized and whether there is money at the end of the day does not matter to a copyright holder as much as making an example of someone to stop others from doing something similar.

Just ask the teenagers who get sued regularly for thousands by recording labels for downloading a song without a license. While there was more room to look the other way before the Internet, the 'net makes it so easy to help oneself by copying a professional quality graphic, sound recording, movie etc, that those who make their living from original creative works often feel pushed so people helping themselves don't make it hard for them to continue to do work that matters to them.

Think of those who create being like farmers. No one would think a farmer is ridiculous for chasing after people who pick fruit from his orchard without making proper arrangements. Nor would the supermarket owner be considered unreasonable if he or she tried to police his or her stock so people wouldn't eat the food in the aisles instead of paying for it at the register.

There are many sources (like the creative commons sites) that do allow others to use material in the way you describe, as long as people follow their simple protocol (usually registering, and agreeing to credit the source of the materials). They are like the grocery that offer free samples at the deli counter or the farmer who lets people glean after harvest. As long as you follow their protocol (whether its not spitting in the sample platter or throwing rocks at the farmer's prize heifers) you can get stuff for free.

Of course, all this said, you are right -- if no one finds out about an infringing act, then there will be no lawsuit. But as noted, the only answerable question is what the law says -- not giving odds. That's a bookie's job. And I'm only a lawyer!

I wish you and your fellow club members much joy in your project.
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