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The 411 on copyright and media infringement

Oct. 14, 2021
Pulling the occasional image from Google to use in your practice's social media feed is no big deal, right? Wrong!

A picture is worth a thousand words. Many dental practices use images and other forms of content to engage their patients or audiences on various social media platforms. And, if I had to guess, quite a few of us have asked our friend Google to assist us in finding just the right image.

No biggie, right? Well actually, it is!

An innocent act of cut and paste on an image used for a social media post has the potential to cost you thousands of dollars. It’s an error in judgment that many make, not realizing that taking such images could be considered copyright infringement and subject to legal and attorney fees.

LegalZoom describes copyright as:

… a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to authors of "original works of authorship." They obtain exclusive rights by means of a copyright registration which allows them to proceed with an infringement suit should they desire to do so.

This includes literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other creative works such as photos, graphic images, and videos, etc. Material not protected by copyright (or otherwise protected) is available for use by anyone without the author's consent. A copyright holder can prevent others from copying, performing or otherwise using the work without his or her consent.

Common misconceptions

Citing the original creator in your social media post protects your practice from infringement. This is a common mistake. For works protected by copyright, you need permission to use the work.

If your friend Google found it, then it must be ok to use. Just because the work is found on the internet and has no visible copyright seal doesn't mean it isn't protected. It might be easy to copy and paste, but the work could still be protected.

It is not all that, therefore is probably not copyright protected. Beauty is the eye of the beholder. One shouldn't assume that because something lacks creativity the creator didn't take measures to protect it.

If the original creator complains, I can just hit "delete." Think again. An aggressive copyright owner can still demand compensation from you for posting their work without permission.

I encountered this very same issue recently with a client I was coaching. They had received a notice of media infringement claim for an image used in one of their social media posts. The company received a cease and desist order demanding immediate removal of the image in question, as well as a nominal fee for unauthorized use. At first, the practice thought this was some type of scam to extort money and reluctantly deleted the image. However, that didn't fully meet the requirements of the notice of infringement. The company continued to pursue payment, leading the practice to consult with their attorney. The social media content creator admitted to using the image without giving a thought that it could be copyrighted. The attorney for the practice asked for and received the copyright registration and other supporting documentation to substantiate the claim. The practice was required to pay the infringement fee, even though it was an innocent error in judgment.

Because social media is so broadly used, many creators are protecting their body of work by obtaining a copyright. This is a good, real-time example of why it's so important that anyone posting on social media and those employed or freelancing as social media content creators ensure that the images and material they use are free and clear from any copyright laws.

Best practices

Obviously, the best protection against copyright infringement is to create your own body of work. However, the fast pace of a dental practice doesn't always allow time for original content creation. Therefore, it may be advantageous to use images from reputable free sites such as Unsplash, Burst, and Flickr, or through a paid subscription to Envato, AdobeStock, or Canva, as they offer licensed images and agreements.

It's always best practice to download and read the copyright agreement from these websites. For an additional layer of protection, have your attorney read the copyright agreement to make sure your practice is protected.  Always save the agreement and a copy of the image that you use; this way, should you receive a notice of copyright infringement, you have proof of licensed use and can dispute the claim.

Christi Bintliff, FAADOM, is practice administrator at Croasdaile Dental Arts in Durham, North Carolina. She has been in the dental profession since 1989 and in her current role since 2007. Bintliff's expertise is largely derived from her education in business administration and from her years with a group practice in Greenville, North Carolina, as well as a medical practice in Rockport, Maine. She has worked in multiple areas of the dental profession ranging from dental assisting, business administration, practice management, consulting, and marketing.