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A few years back, I had a neighbor. Pretty good guy, albeit a bit grumpy, and one day he saw me in my back yard and gave me a “hey there” or something like that. I walked over to the row of pine trees separating our lots and he informed me that we had a problem. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but before I had a chance to ask, he pointed to the pinecones littering the ground on both sides of the property line, voicing his concern that they were liable to tear his lawn mower up and he wanted to know what I intended to do about it, seeing as they’d fallen from the trees on my property.

Now granted, these pinecones were pretty big, but he had some kind of yellow and green yard tractor mower thing that I figured could easily digest them, but I didn’t really want to go there. So I just looked at him and asked if those weren’t pine trees, but rather money trees and if those pinecones were hundred-dollar bills, would we even be having this discussion? At that point his face went blank, his spirit broken, his mind addled, completely dumbfounded by my response as he turned and stumbled toward the safety of his house.

That’s pretty much how I feel about life in the digital world. I’m dazed and confused when it comes to software licenses, usage rights and all the times when we click a button that reads “I have read and accept these terms and conditions” before not reading anything but the text on that button and moving to the next step. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure that by just clicking that button, we’ve violated at least one term or condition buried deep within the bowels of all that legalese we didn’t read.

Cutting through the confusion

All that being said, I’m going to narrow our scope today and focus on digital design, images and content creation as we build out our websites. And keep in mind that I am NOT a lawyer, but just a regular guy who wants to play by the rules and pay people and companies their rightful due. Having read that sentence you implicitly and/or explicitly acknowledge and agree that I am indeed NOT a lawyer and that before reading further you will not hold me in any way liable or in ad infinitum et alia tempus fugit. Latin. Always add some of that when you’re being legalish.

So let’s talk about stock photos, video clips and music that we find online from one of several giant companies who aggregate such things for us. In most cases (at least for web design) the licensing is fairly clear and before you download an asset, you’ll see something like this:

Standard License: Limited usage in print, advertising, and packaging. Unlimited web distribution.

Oh how I love those bolded words and how utterly joyous I am that I don’t have to dig deeper and figure out what limited usage for other media is all about. This, to me, is a green light. And I didn’t have to click anything to imply that I understood those terms. Just download and start creating.

Ah, but there are other assets with licensing rights that aren’t quite so clear cut. Every once in blue moon you’ll find the perfect image, but you’ll see something like this:

Important information. Editorial Use Only.

Oh how I detest THOSE bolded words. They’re generally accompanied by a link you can click that will take you down a rabbit hole of undetermined depth – I’ve yet to find the bottom – where you might be able to purchase some sort of assurance that allows you to use the image for commercial purposes, but nope, I’m not going there.

Side note: I wonder how they really know if you’re actually using the image for editorial purposes? Is there a magic pixel buried in it that sends data back to the mothership after analyzing the surrounding content and reports that clearly, it is NOT editorial? And what is ‘editorial content’ anyway? If I’m merely expressing an opinion, does that make my content ‘editorial’ even if it’s buried in a blog post on a site where I’m obviously trying to sell my services or products? See, it can get gray fast. If you’re not willing to pony up more money, avoid using images with the ‘Editorial Use Only’ tag.

Enough about stock stuff. What about images we might find using The Google? It’s tempting, but no. I just did a search for ‘big waves’ and then clicked ‘Images’ to illustrate this point. I clicked one and got this:

Images may be subject to copyright

More bolded words. Pretty sure that means they ARE subject to copyright, even if only by virtue of the fact that they live on a website that’s copyrighted. It’s best just not to go there. I suppose you could try and get permission to use an image, but that might take a really long time, or prove to be another rabbit hole. And please…never right click on an image, download it and pretend that it’s okay to use it in your web design. It’s not. Especially if it’s from a website where I paid a licensing fee to use that image.

Watch your words

Enough about assets. What about content? When we’re dealing with content creation, hopefully most of our content is original. But, as an example, there may be instances when we might take content from a manufacturer’s website. If you’re doing it to sell their products (as opposed to your knockoffs) they’re likely going to be good with that, but you should have your person check with their person just to be sure. If you must use copyrighted material from an outside source, be sure to get permission, cite the sources and all things necessary to respect the copyrights of others.

And then there are images, music, articles, plays, poetry and other things that live in a place called ‘the public domain.’ Basically, anyone can use things found in the public domain, but no one can own them. There are plenty of things in that place and you can figure out for yourself what they are. I’m too old and life’s too short.

So that’s my take on ownership of some digital things. We’ll talk about fonts in another blog. But the bottom line is that digitally speaking, we never really OWN anything nowadays, but we can pay a fee to license and use them.

And just for the record, after my neighbor went back inside, I picked up all of my pinecones littering his property, pretending they were hundred-dollar bills…


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