The Copyright Conundrum

January 10, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

A few years ago, I attended a management training course at work, which was all about problem-solving and efficiency.  It was common for group business training to be delivered to people in roles like mine, and I learned a great deal from some of them.  They were never a riot, though.  One of the challenges for those presenting material to these kinds of sessions, was to keep it upbeat and light-hearted.  If the presentation was straight after lunch in what was known as the ‘graveyard shift’, it became more important to add humour and interaction to make sure everyone was awake.  On this particular day, a senior manager was giving their presentation during ‘the shift’ while we all awaited the arrival of the fresh coffee; that a tough crowd for sure.  Lethargy wasn’t what was bothering me about the material on the screen, however.  The slides were littered with Dilbert cartoons.  Now, you must have been in a cave for the past 25 years if you haven’t seen or heard of Dilbert, the long-suffering engineer in a company surrounded by incompetent management, narrow-minded colleagues, and daft corporate processes.  The cartoon, by Scott Adams has made us laugh, albeit uncomfortably at times, because the situations the eponymous character finds himself in are often very familiar to those who work in corporate office jobs.  The slides that I was looking at were trying to inform as to ‘how not to motivate the team etc’ and used Adams’ humour to achieve their objective.   During the welcome coffee break, I said to the presenter that I didn’t know our business had a licence to use Dilbert. What I received in response was a blank look.   Eventually they said “it doesn’t matter, it’s public domain”.  Therein lay the problem.  Adams’ licences the cartoons to publications like newspapers and magazines, but he also has a licence for commercial use.   If there isn’t a licence in place, the cartoons could not be used by a company like ours for any kind of commercial gain.  Now, in fairness my employer was a huge business and I’m sure that licence existed somewhere in the vast structure of the organisation, but that’s not the point.  The point is that if you look closely at social media or small online businesses, you’ll become aware of how many times people share photographs without considering the owner or creator.   They are found on Google Images, so they must be ok, right? Well, no.  Like the Dilbert episode, it’s most likely an infringement of copyright to use a picture you find while wandering the internet, if you don’t have permission to do so.

Copyright Claim, by Markus Winkler (via Unsplash)

It doesn’t take a great deal of thought or expertise to recognise that the internet is a huge ‘place’ and as such, is very difficult to police in terms of copyright.  There are also other aspects to consider, like how the image is being used.  For example, in academic study in the UK, there is an exception in place that covers research and criticism.  In my degree course, I analyse and write essays about famous photographs, and I reference them properly in the writing to make it clear that the source doesn’t belong to me.  If I wanted to include them in my commercial work, I would need permission, which is the reason why I only include my own photographs in these blog posts for example.   I’m not sitting in judgement of people who accidentally breach copyright, but I am acutely aware of how I would feel if someone nicked one of my pictures for their Instagram (I had a couple of instances of that last year) or other purposes without my permission.   The reason for writing about copyright this week, is that I was accused of copyright infringement myself, falsely I might add.   I had just finished my photographic series for the current module of my course, called Modern Monsters, which is ironically about online trolling.  I chose to present the series as a video, hosted on YouTube, as I felt like this was the right context to set the project within.  Over the slideshow of my photographs, I used the famous piano piece Gnossiennes No.1, by Erik Satie.   As soon as the work was published, I was hit with a copyright infringement claim.  Here’s the thing, there is an expiry date for copyright that is 70 years after the death of the creator, so Satie’s sheet music for Gnossiennes is no longer covered as he died in 1925.  However, recordings of his work are covered by their own copyright as they were an interpretation of the original.  The musician uses their own style to perform it, perhaps creates a variation or includes other instruments or even a full-blown orchestra.  The moment they did that, they create something new, which is subject to copyright.  In my case, someone believed that I had used their work as part of Modern Monsters.  In fact, I’d carefully selected a recording that was subject to what is known as a Creative Commons licence, which means that the creator wishes it to be truly public domain.  This claim should be resolved pretty easily on the basis that I have the proof that it’s baseless.  However, the key learning from this was actually something else.   The claim was made literally seconds after the video went live, which to me suggests that there are content creators using automatic web bots to look for potential uses of their property.   Either that, or they were super-human or psychic.  If bots are being used to scour the internet, then we should all be careful where copyright of online material is concerned.   

Next time you see that  photograph that you like or a cartoon that makes you laugh, think about whether you can, or even should, share it.  Chances are the idea of going viral would be appealing to an artist, but there will be people who rely on their work for an income who object and, if proven right, might consider legal action.  The good news is that there are plenty of providers of imagery and music for content creators where copyright is handled by licencing or exemptions.  I’m certainly going to be using them more in 2023 as I pursue some content creation of my own, but more on that in the coming weeks. 

For my series Modern Monsters, please visit


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