By Ruth Carter published November 17, 2015

Avoid Legal Action: Take Proper Steps to Own the Content


Do you know who the kings of content are?

They’re the copyright owners. They have the right to decide how the work will be used, copied, and distributed.

Without copyright ownership or permission (preferably in writing) for scope of use, you:

  • Can’t crop the image to fit your website header
  • Can’t repurpose a blog post for an e-newsletter or social media
  • Can’t give permission to other sites to repost your video

You are essentially handcuffed in how you use the content.

Most of us recognize that we can’t just find text and images on the web, then cut and paste them to our own website. But too many people, including so-called marketing experts, think as long as they cite the borrowed content’s source and link to the original, it’s OK to use. Or they think that if they hire a photographer, they own the images and can use them any way they want. They are wrong. The copyright owners have the exclusive right to control where their work is copied, distributed, and displayed.

It is imperative that you understand the do’s and don’ts in regards to copyright and contract law. If you use the work without proper permission, you could face a variety of legal consequences, including:

  • Cease-and-desist letter – a notice from the alleged copyright owners demanding that you remove their content
  • DMCA takedown notice – a notice citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act from the alleged copyright owners to your web-hosting service demanding that it disable access to the page that contains their material
  • Licensing agreement with an invoice – a bill from the alleged copyright owners because using their material indicated that you agreed to the terms of their licensing agreement, which includes payment for use
  • Lawsuit for copyright infringement – a lawsuit in federal court filed by the alleged copyright owners, asking for an order to remove the allegedly infringing material and for you to pay damages and possibly attorneys’ fees for the illegal use of their content

The copyright owners decide which legal recourse they will pursue. The first notice you may receive about the alleged copyright infringement could be a lawsuit. And the fact that you didn’t understand copyright law will not protect you from the legal consequences, even if you apologize.

Know the law, document your rights

If you work with a third-party content creator (writer, photographer, videographer, etc.), take steps to secure ownership or licensing rights in your written agreement with the contracted individual or agency.

Ideally, you want a contract that gives you copyright ownership of everything created by the third party. If you do secure full rights, consider detailing in the agreement that the third party can use a copy of the creation in a portfolio.

If you are negotiating the details with the third party, consider terms that transfer copyright ownership once the creator has been paid in full.

In some cases, content creators may charge more for their creations if they give up copyright ownership or permit additional uses of the content beyond its original form. (Freelance artists have long charged a higher fee if their work was used on the cover in addition to inside-page layouts.)

When you contract with a third-party content creator, ensure your agreement answers the following questions:

  • What is the contractor creating?
  • How will changes to the project be handled?
  • What are the deadlines and deliverables?
  • How and when will the contractor be paid?
  • Who will own the copyright for what the contractor creates?
  • If the contractor creates or provides something that leads to the accusation of legal wrongdoing, will the contractor indemnify you and be responsible for your legal fees and damages?
  • Under what circumstances can either party terminate the contract?
  • If a legal dispute arises between the parties, how will it be resolved (i.e., mediation, arbitration, or litigation)? In what city or county will the dispute resolution process take place? Which state’s law will apply?

If you work with these parties on an ongoing basis, revisit your agreement annually to make sure the contract fits the scope of the relationship and current law.

Note: If you already have contracts with your outside content creators, update them to secure copyright ownership or scope-of-use permission going forward. But, also seek copyright ownership of previously created work. You likely will have to purchase those rights when you amend the original agreement.

While there are plenty of free independent-contractor and work-made-for-hire contract templates available online, this is not a time to skimp on quality. You can use these templates to get ideas for your contract provisions, but you shouldn’t use a contract to outsource your content creation unless it’s been approved by your intellectual property attorney.

In this two-minute video, Ruth talks about relationships
between businesses and the third-party content creators they hire.

Know the purchase terms

When you secure an image or content from a professionally run website, you agree to its licensing terms. Make sure you understand the rules you have to follow in using the properly acquired image – even when it’s free.

In some cases, you may be purchasing one-time rights to use the image or may be prohibited from altering the image in any way.

If you secure an image through a Creative Commons license, ensure the license allows you to commercialize the image – otherwise, you can’t use it for business purposes. (Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that enables sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools.)


TIP: Flickr, a user-generated image community, built Creative Commons licensing options into its interface. Users who share photos can do so on their terms, including giving their permission for free, legal sharing, use, and remixing. As such, it has become a leading resource for free, legally shareable images.

TIP: If you find the perfect image but it doesn’t have the proper Creative Commons license, reach out to the copyright holder and ask for permission.


Now that you know about the value of copyright ownership and how to secure those rights, you can take steps to prevent legal accusations in the future. Do your best to obtain full copyright ownership. If you have to compromise, know all the potential use parameters and prioritize the ones most important to your existing content marketing strategy. The end goal is to have an agreement that ensures you’re truly the king of your content.

Now that you have the proper rights to your content, learn how to get more readers for that content with the best techniques for creating captivating headlines. Read CMI’s e-book, How to Cook Up a Killer Content Marketing Headline.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Ruth Carter

Ruth Carter is a licensed attorney in Arizona with a practice that focuses on intellectual property, social media law, business startups and contracts, and flash mob law. She is the author of three best-selling books on the legalities of guerrilla marketing and social media including The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. Ruth is active on Twitter @rbcarter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Periscope.

Other posts by Ruth Carter

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  • James Bliwas

    As far back as the 1990s, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the creator of content owns the material even if it is licensed to a third party. The third party owns it for the use it paid for but unless there is a specific, written clause in the contract licensing the material transferring ownership to the licensee then the creator continues to own all other rights.

    • Ruth Carter

      Hi James – The copyright rules in different countries are often similar. Under the Berne Convention many countries acknowledge the rights established in other countries. When evaluating a situation, it’s a good idea to see which country’s laws apply.

  • Greg Strandberg

    When I lived in China there was a common phrase: It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

    This site (one with money, and an owner with money) might have to worry about this issue. The majority of sites, however, do not.

    • Ruth Carter

      Hi Greg – I’ve had the beg forgiveness/ask permission discussion with several clients about using others’ content. We lay out the risks and rewards depending on the situation and then I let the client decide what is best for them. In those cases my goal is to help clients make an educated decision.