Saturday, October 28, 2006

Blogs, Websites & Podcasts: When Do You Need Permission?

In this episode we’re going to examine what happens if you use other people’s material in your business – for example, you use someone’s artwork on your blog, using someone’s music on your podcast, or using another company’s trademark at your website.
We’re speaking with Rich Stim, the author of the book Getting Permission from Nolo and an expert on copyright and fair use.

NOLO: First question, Rich do I need to get your permission to interview you for this podcast?

Rich Stim: Well, in my case, no and it’s similar to the case of most interview subjects for podcasts or newspapers or magazines. I see that you’re taking notes. You’ve told me it’s for an interview. And in this case I see the microphone, so I’m impliedly consenting to have my words broadcast or recorded or used for whatever purpose you’ve told me it’s going to be used for.
There are times when you should get a signed interview release. And I want you to keep in mind one thing which is we’re only talking, right now, about the right to use the statements that are made by an interview subject. I’m not talking about the rules for getting permission to use copyrighted music or photos or artwork or anything else. We’ll talk about that later.
But as a general rule, as you move from editorial uses to commercial uses for interview subjects, if you follow that meter from one side to the other as it gets closer to commercial and further away from an editorial use, you should get a signed release.
What’s the difference between editorial and commercial? Well, if you’re interviewing a lawyer, like me, for an article or information style podcast, that’s probably an editorial use. But if you were creating a book of interviews with lawyers, or if you were using this interview as means of advertising some other legal service like a lawyer directory, I think at that point you definitely would want to have permission from the person, something signed and in writing indicating consent for those commercial purposes.
Another situation you need permission from an interview subject is if you’re working on a project and it’s a project in which other companies or distributors are involved. For example, if you’re making a documentary film that involves distributors, production companies, and everyone up higher in the food chain is going to ask you for evidence of permissions – whether or not they’re following the rules I’m talking about. So even if the use seems purely editorial, the distributor, or the book publisher may want the release. So, it’s best to get those at the time of the interview; it’s hard to go back and get that release later.
Another thing that arises with interviews is that an interview subject may ask to read or edit the interview or to have some comments removed or kept “off the record.” Any agreement that is made with the interview subject, including an agreement for anonymity, should be documented. Failure to honor the arrangement may give rise to a lawsuit for monetary damages.
By the way, I’ve posted a downloadable sample interview release, along with a transcript of this podcast at

NOLO: What’s the best way to get someone’s permission without making it seem really legal and scaring the person away?

Rich Stim: Okay … now we’re moving beyond interviews and talking about all kinds of permissions … for example, permission to use someone’s music or photography or to use a model’s image in an ad. These cases are often different and it always it depends on what you’re using and what you’re using it for. But let’s just assume you’re going to need permission for what you’re doing.
When you want to get that permission it’s always best to keep it short and sweet – if you can – for example, I’ve met photographers for example who have reduced their model release forms to the size of a business card because it seems less imposing.
And the other thing you want to keep in mind is that you want your release to reflect the potential uses you might have for the material, uses that you may anticipate in the future. And of course, as I talk about in the book, Getting Permission, there are times when you don’t need permission at all.

NOLO: What happens if someone is creating work for you like doing photography or creating a website? Do you need to get permission to use that?

Rich Stim: Right, don’t assume just because you’re paying someone to do something that you own all rights. That’s a big mistake. A lot of people make it with photographers and graphic artists. Here’s the deal -- if someone is your employee and they – you withhold taxes, etc., and that employee creates something for you under your direction or in the course of your employment – then you’re probably never need to get permission to use that material. You’re going to own it. Now, you or your company can bolster that situation with some paperwork that assures or guarantees your rights. But generally even without the paperwork, a company is going to own what the employee creates.
But that’s not always the case if the person is a contractor. In that case, you’re going to have to make sure you’re getting the rights from a contractor and you can do that a few ways. You can ask the person to assign all copyright to you, or to acquire all rights under a work made for hire agreement – though not everything qualifies as a work made for hire. Or you can have the contractor sign an agreement that gives you the exclusive rights you want. But the important thing to remember is that there’s a difference between whether some3one’s creating something for you as an employee or a contractor. So if you’re paying someone as a contractor to take your photo or build a website, it’s best to get written permission.

NOLO: Your book, Getting Permission, explains the importance of getting permission before you sell or publish something … but don’t some people do better by not asking for permission? Isn’t it possible to get more attention by taking the unauthorized route?

Rich Stim: Yes that’s true but I’d qualify one thing you said. I don’t think doing something that’s unauthorized is what gets you attention. I think what gets you attention is that you do something unauthorized and you’re doing it really well. That’s been the case with a lot of artists. They become famous using unauthorized material without permission. That’s how Andy Warhol started his career. But to really pull it off, you’ve got to be good, and you’ve got to have some amount of artistic courage because you’re going to have to face down copyright or trademark owners who will come after you and you’ve got to have some original talent because eventually, the copyright owner will stop you from doing what you’re doing. And at that point you’ll need to come up with a way to make your talent work in an authorized way.
And I’ll make another point that’s also important. It’s all great for courageous artists to take that stance but you can’t take that “forget about permission” attitude if you’re working for a client or you’re working at a company. Some companies may take risks and nothing happens. And others - like Google, will take informed risks that they’re willing to support in court.
But generally, the business world is an “authorized” world and when you’re working work with or for these are people, you’re going to need to get permission. Because if you use an image for an ad campaign or a website or you use somebody else’s trademark and you don’t have permission that’s going to hurt your livelihood. So in these cases you need to follow the straight and narrow and get permission.

NOLO: You hear about people getting letters from attorneys accusing them of ripping off somebody’s music or artwork? What’s the best way to respond when this happens?

Rich Stim: The smartest thing to do is to investigate and respond as quickly as possible, and ideally, during the period when you’re investigating, take down whatever it is that’s offending the copyright or trademark owner. That doesn’t mean you’re caving in, but it’s an important risk-aversion approach because it demonstrates you are acting in good faith and if the person decides to sue you later that initial gesture of good faith will go a long way to saving you money on financial damages in the lawsuit, if there are any.
By investigating, I mean you’re going to have to look into the issue. Maybe you can do it by checking out some common resources that I’ve provided. But you may need to speak with an attorney who is knowledgeable in copyrights, trademarks
Once you’ve done your investigating then you need to decide if you’re going to take a stand on the issue. Is it going to be worth the hassle to you? It’s really a business decision and try to avoid deciding it solely on principle. Remember that lawyers love clients who are fighting on principle means that the fees will keep coming and keep coming.

NOLO: But aren’t these letters often just somebody trying to bully somebody else

Rich Stim: Yes, there are two types of bullying. Each is annoying in its own way. One type of bullying is when a company would probably prevail in a lawsuit against you – the company has a legitimate right to stop you -- but they’re pushing much harder than they need to get the job done or asking for much more than they really might be entitled to. You’ll have to deal with that type of aggressive behavior as best as you can … perhaps attempting to negotiate the best deal you can for yourself. A lawyer may be able to help. That’s part of the price for using unauthorized material.
The second type of bullying is the really awful type where a company doesn’t really have a legal claim or they have a borderline claim. They may or may not prevail in a lawsuit. But they have the legal muscle and financing to take you to court and you probably don’t. You see this a lot in trademark cases, where companies may try to stop another company from using a similar name. And you see it in copyright cases where you may have a right under fair use rules to reproduce something but you can’t afford to prove it in court.
Again, it’s a business decision. But I would add one thing if it makes a difference. I don’t know if it does. Try not to take the bullying personally. In most cases it’s strictly business. It’s just an aggressive or greedy company is just trying to squeeze somebody.

NOLO: So we’re doing podcast, can you give us some legal tips regarding permission and podcasts?

Rich Stim: Well, podcasts are like everything in the world of permissions. You’re more likely to run into a problem if you’re doing something without permission and it’s making the owner of that you’ve taken property mad. And of course, remember the other side of it … the tree falling in the forest thing. If nobody hears or sees what you’re doing, except a few friends, well, you can rip off as much as you want but once you land on the copyright owner’s radar screen, that’s when you’re going to may run into problem.
In a way, you’re really asking what makes the owners of a trademark and copyright mad… or at least so mad that they’re going to go after you. Well, one thing is if they feel like they’re losing money; another is if they feel they’re being publicly disparaged. So, for example, if you’re a commercial podcaster and you’re working with a corporate client, you’re always best off getting signed permissions from the talent, getting a written license to use music ( or better yet use license-free music), and you’re going to want to avoid using a title that’s confusingly similar to another company or another podcast that’s engaged in the same sort of information or services. For example, I’d advise against calling a financial podcast, “Don’t Leave Home Without It” because you’re likely to get a cease and desist letter form American Express. And they will be concerned that you’re confusing consumers that your podcast is somehow associated with theirs.

NOLO: What about linking to another website, are those ever illegal?

Rich Stim: As a general rule I’d say that linking is a non-issue except for one thing and again, that is what makes a copyright owner mad. If you’re linking to something unauthorized, yes, you’re going to run into a problem. For example, at Nolo we’ve had to go after to people who are linking to illegal downloads of our software. And those are links that are doing more than connecting you with another website. Those kinds of links do what I discussed before, they duplicate illegally and they make a copyright owner mad in the process because the copyright owner is losing money.

NOLO: You hear copyright is illegal. Is it ever possible to go to jail for copying things?

Rich Stim: Very very rarely does anyone do time for copyright or trademark infringement. Usually it’s only in large cases of counterfeit goods will you find law enforcement getting involved and charging someone with a crime.

NOLO: When don’t you need to get permission?

Rich Stim: You don’t need to get permission if something is in the public domain or if you are using something and it’s a fair use. Fair use is a great concept but it takes courage or money or to really face somebody down and claim a fair use. The principal is that the copyright law says that you can use something without permission if you’re using a small portion for purposes of commentary. That’s roughly the idea. And there are four factors judges consider but the factor that matters the most is whether you’re transforming the work. That is, it’s a transformative use. For example a parody or critical commentary are transformative, But the problem with fair use is that there are no real guidelines so you can never be sure of what it is --- unless you’re matching a court case that matches your facts exactly -- until you get to court. It’s only in court that a judge will decide whether it is a fair use. So, again it comes back to whether you want to deal with the hassle and expense of that kind of battle.

NOLO: If fair use is supposed to be about transforming the work then why did the lawyers shut down that fan fiction book at Amazon.

Rich Stim: Maybe you should explain what fan fiction is.

NOLO: Fan fiction or fanfic is when fans of a movie or television show create their own fiction using the characters from the movie or show. The case I was referring to is when a fan of Star Wars wrote a book called Another Hope using Star Wars characters and Lucasfilm complained and had it pulled form online websites.

Rich Stim: For the most part, it seems as if copyright owners are taking a laissez faire attitude to fan fiction on websites. I think they realize these people are fans and they should just let it be. That’s why you see so much of it on the web. There’s not much commerce involved, it’s being done out love for the characters and the work
But – and again we get back to this same point – once you start to make the copyright owner angry – usually by diverting commerce from their business – then somebody is likely to come after you. I think this author crossed that line by moving from a website publication to printing the material in a book and selling it. I think the same result would happen if somebody tried to make a movie out of Another Hope.

Thanks so much for speaking with us today, Rich.

Rich Stim: Thanks. I have a feeling some listeners will feel like we haven’t hit all the issues that are on people’s minds when it comes to blogs and podcasts and that’s true … so I’ve posted a few links at the and I hope to set up another podcast in the future to talk about issues like the creative commons, and more specific copyright and trademark related issues.

Interview Release Form & Explanation

Nolo Copyright Center
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
U.S. Copyright Office
Stanford Library Copyright and Fair Use Website
Example of a Sample Interview Permission
Most reporters and writers do not obtain signed interview releases because they presume that by giving the interview, the subject has consented to the interview and, therefore, there can be no claim for invasion of privacy. In addition, many interview subjects don't have the ability or inclination to execute a written release--for example, a person interviewed by telephone for a deadline newspaper story.
Nevertheless, a written interview release is helpful. It can help avoid lawsuits for libel, invasion of privacy or even copyright infringement (since the speaker’s words may be copyrightable). It’s wise to obtain a signed release if the interview is lengthy, will be reprinted verbatim (for example, in a question and answer format) or if the subject matter of the interview is controversial.
It is common for an interview subject to ask to read or edit the interview or to have some comments removed or kept “off the record.” Any agreement that is made with the interview subject (including an agreement for anonymity) should be documented. Failure to honor the arrangement may give rise to a lawsuit for monetary damages.
If the interview subject is willing to proceed with the interview, but does not want to sign a release, ask if he or she will make an oral consent into a tape or video recorder or video. Although not as reliable as a written release, a statement such as “I consent to the use of my statements for use in the Musician’s Gazette” will provide some assurance of your right to use the statement.
An interview release is a hybrid agreement, part release and part license. The release, below is suitable if permission is sought to use an existing interview or to conduct a new interview.

Interview Release
Grant. For consideration which I acknowledge, I consent to the recording of my statements and grant to _________________ (“Company”) and Company’s assigns, licensees and successors the right to copy, reproduce, and use all or a portion of the statements (the “Interview”) for incorporation in the following work _________________________________________ (the “Work”).
I permit the use of all or a portion of the Interview in the Work in all forms and media including advertising and related promotion throughout the world and in perpetuity. I grant the right to use my image and name in connection with all uses of the Interview and waive the right to inspect or approve use of my Interview as incorporated in the Work.
Release. I release Company and Company’s assigns, licensees and successors from any claims that may arise regarding the use of the Interview including any claims of defamation, invasion of privacy, or infringement of moral rights, rights of publicity or copyright. I acknowledge that I have no ownership rights in the Work.
Company is not obligated to utilize the rights granted in this Agreement.
I have read and understood this agreement and I am over the age of 18. This Agreement expresses the complete understanding of the parties.
Interview Subject Signature
Interview Subject Name
Interview Subject Address
Date _____________
Parent/Guardian Consent. I am the parent or guardian of the minor named above. I have the legal right to consent to and do consent to the terms and conditions of this release.
Parent/Guardian Signature
Parent/Guardian Name
Parent/Guardian Address
Date _____________

Explanation for Interview Release Agreement
It’s possible that the Interview may already have been recorded, in which case the language “consent to the recording of my statements and” can be stricken from the Grant section. If the Interview will be included in more than one work, list all works and change the term “Work” to “Works” throughout the agreement. Unlimited or blanket releases for interviews are not common, partly because subjects usually are not prepared to relinquish unlimited rights.
If seeking unlimited rights (the interview can be used for any purpose) substitute the following Grant section.

Grant. For consideration which I acknowledge, I consent to the recording of my statements and grant to _________________ (“Company”) and Company’s assigns, licensees and successors the right to copy, reproduce, and use all or a portion of the statements (the “Interview”) for all purposes, including advertising, trade or any commercial purpose throughout the world and in perpetuity.
I grant the right to use my image and name in connection with all uses of the Interview and waive the right to inspect or approve any use of my Interview.

If the interview subject does not wish to waive the right to inspect the final work, strike that sentence and arrange for the interview subject to provide approval.
If the release is executed after the interview has been transcribed, it is helpful to attach a transcription of the interview to the release agreement. This provides an assurance that the interview subject has notice of what was said in the interview. Add a sentence to the grant section such as “A complete transcription of the interview is attached and incorporated in this Agreement.”
The release section provides protection against subsequent legal claims.
If the interview subject is under 18, a parent or guardian’s consent is required

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