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How to Use Copyrighted Materials Without Breaking the Law

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Wondering when you need permission to use copyrighted materials (i.e., a book or writing) in your business? Read on to learn what coaches and creatives need to know about safely using copyrighted materials in their business and programs to avoid breaking copyright law.

Have you wondered how you can safely use other people’s content in your programs without breaking copyright law?

I got this question recently from a client…

“Hi Sam! When can I use links to other people’s stuff online as resources in my paid courses?”

Good question! I’m so glad you asked.

Because if you don’t use copyrighted materials the right way, you could accidentally step into some hot legal water.

You can get hit with all kinds of fun stuff — fines, take down notices, and yes — worst case scenario — a copyright infringement lawsuit.

No bueno, right?

You just want to be able to give your clients the resources and info they need the right (#legallylegit) way.

You want to share books, writings or excerpts from experts in your field without getting into legal trouble.

But you’ve tried Googling all things ‘copyright’ and you’re more confused than before. You just don’t want to mess this up.

So today I’m breaking down some of the basics of how you can legally share copyrighted materials (aka. other people’s content or written materials).

Let’s kick this off with the basics, shall we? Grab an earl grey latte and let’s get cozy.

What is a copyright?

What is a copyright?

According to the United States Copyright Office, a copyright is “a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.” (U.S. Copyright Office).

What the what?!

In plain English, a copyright is a type of intellectual property protection you can get in something original you write or create.

Copyright protects creative work like books, writings, songs, photographs, movies, etc.

Is this copyrightable?

Whenever you’re wondering whether you need copyright permission (or if you’re trying to figure out if you want to copyright something of your own), the first question to ask is: is this thing even copyright-able?

In other words, does this *thing* qualify for copyright, trademark, or patent protection?

Before clients join my Ultimate Bundle™ program, they’ll ask: “Sam, should I trademark my book?” or “Sam, should I copyright my program title?”

Books = copyright

Names, titles, logos = trademark

So before you spend too much time going down any rabbit hole of registration or asking for permission, you need to know what is what.

Now that you know what qualifies for copyright protection, you’ll know whether you need to ask for permission to use a copyrighted work.

Permission to Use Copyright Work

So now you want to use a book from another author. You know it’s copyrighted because A. it’s a book and B. it probably says so in the book.

But you still want to use it to share with your program or clients. So what’s a girl to do?

How to legally share copyrighted material

Ask! The #1 way to legally share copyrighted materials is to ask the copyright owner and obtain permission.

You can contact the publisher or author of the book, ask the U.S. Copyright Office who owns the work, or reach out through some other channel.

But getting the owner’s permission is definitely the safest way to avoid any accusation down the line of infringement.

However, permission might not always work. Maybe the author says no. Or maybe Gabby Bernstein doesn’t respond to your email. So then what?

Well I can tell you this: the answer isn’t to go ahead and use it anyway. If you don’t get permission, you’re not able to share the work unless one of the exceptions we’ll talk about below applies.

Derivative works count.

We’re not just talking about sharing the direct work here. You also have to be careful that something you create isn’t considered a derivative of the original copyrighted work.

For example, I couldn’t go out and create a play based on a Harry Potter book. That would be a derivative work that infringes on the original copyright (Harry Potter books).

Fair-Use Exception

There are limited exceptions where you can use a small amount or sample of someone’s work without first getting their written permission. The main type of ‘exception’ is called Fair Use.

Fair Use Exemption

Fair use is when you’re allowed to use that small portion without the author’s permission because there’s some greater good at play. BUT – and this a big but – there are lots of caveats you need to know first.

The biggest factor regarding whether you’d qualify for the fair use exception is whether you’re using the work for commercial or educational purposes.

In other words, if you want to share a sample of Gabby Bernstein’s book with the women who signed up for your program (that they paid to be in), that would be considered commercial.

If you’re a college professor trying to share something with your class, then that’s educational.

Other factors courts consider when determining whether the fair use exception applies are:

  • Nature of the copyrighted work: using books, movies, songs etc. are less OK than quoting from a news article.
  • Amount used: did you copy and email out a chapter or the entire book? Using less doesn’t make it OK, but it’s a factor that’s considered.
  • Effect on the market: how did your sharing effect the future market of the copyrighted work? Would or could those people have purchased the work if you didn’t share it? (with my clients, the answer is typically yes).

For 99% of my clients, I don’t think they should rely on the fair use exception applying to them. Most of the time, you’re using the work inside of a paid offering. I think you’d get knocked out on factor #1 (educational vs. commercial).

There are also works that can be used that are considered public domain. For example – a picture whose copyright either has expired or never existed in the first place is in the public domain. These are fair game to use for personal or commercial purposes. The only real exception is if the image is of an identifiable person, in which case you may need his or her permission before you post.

I know we’ve gone over a LOT. And I know you might feel discouraged right about now. But don’t fret! I’m going to go over quickly steps you can take to share copyrighted work.

Steps to Take:

  1. Is this copyrightable? Is the work you want to share the kind of thing that even qualifies for copyright protection (i.e., a book or written material). Yes? Then go to step 2.
  2. Ask Permission. Reach out and try to get permission. Not sure if you need it? When in doubt, try to get permission for the work created. Can’t get permission for some reason? Go to step 3.
  3. Assign the Reading. Treat your program like a college class, and either assign the reading OR purchase the reading and send it out individually to each client. You could even include a book in your welcome/thank you package!
  4. Create your own work. I get a lot of questions from people worrying that they’re copying off others, not just nervous to share original work. If you’re even questioning it, you might be too close to the original work. Create your own thing. Add that copyright notice. You’re allowed to learn from and expand on other people’s work. You just can’t copy theirs.

So that’s how I’d go about sharing other people’s work in my own program!

As always, remember: this isn’t legal advice. Although I worked on on this post, it’s not 100% comprehensive because your situation may be unique. This isn’t permission to go ahead and start using other people’s work ; )

It’s an invitation to learn more about how to safely and legally share other people’s work in your own program.

Teaching you how to safely use other people’s content (and how to legally protect your own), is just 1 of the things I teach you inside my course, the Ultimate Bundle®.

Learn more about the 13 DIY legal templates and Ultimate Bundle­® now.

So love — what do you want to know about how to legally share other people’s work? Drop me a comment or email me.

I’d love to hear from you ❤️

7 Comments
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  1. Dear Sam:

    I am writing a book. The book is about how I challenged and changed the law, so it is now legal for women to go top free, like men, in any public places like swimming pools. While I was doing some research I discovered a Vancouver Parks By-law from 1906, which I want to use. My question is can I use the bylaw in my book because I know the bylaw’s copyright was not registered? If I have to get permission and permission is not granted can I use the by-law anyway?

  2. In an online course, can I mention “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars” when creating a metaphor – not quoting them or anything or including passages or still images or videos, just saying the name?

    1. Hi J! You can mention the titles of books, movies, or shows in a course as you’re not titling your course as Harry Potter and selling it under the guise that someone is purchasing the Harry Potter movie. Mentioning a name is fine. 🙂

      – Leanne
      Team Sam Vander Wielen LLC

  3. Hi Sam,
    Thank you for this great information. I’m having a bit of a problem getting authors to reply to my email requests to use a book in my online teacher training, in fact I cant complete my training manual or video’s till i have the book! I have written to three authors, and one of their literary and publicity agents, but sadly no one will reply to me! I am requiring the book to be used in my training, so you’d think it would be a winning situation for the author, as they’ll have more sales of their book! I have approx 20 teachers who are waiting to start the training, so it’s pretty frustrating for me, as I’m also loosing money by them not replying to my request. Any advice would be really helpful.
    Thank you
    Alexis Burroughs

    1. Thank you for your comment! There are some additional resources from Sam that might help you decide if the content you’re wanting to use falls under Fair Use:

      http://www.samvanderwielen.com/how-to-legally-share-content/
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWFWlBVSlNI (if you prefer to watch) or http://www.samvanderwielen.com/episode-19/ (if you prefer to listen or read the transcript – check out the transcript at the 21:30 mark regarding how to use an entire book of someone else’s works in your training)
      And Fair Use rules directly from the US Copyright Office: https://www.copyright.gov/fair-use/

      – Leanne
      Team Sam Vander Wielen LLC

  4. Ok. Sam. If I copy a paragraph from a local published news article and forward that paragraph to my sister. Is that copywriting infringement? My sister is the only destination of the paragraph. No public involved

    1. Hello Mark!

      This blog post refers to use of copyrighted material in your business, which assumes you’re sharing it in a public venue. As you’re sharing something privately, this blog post wouldn’t pertain to your scenario.

      – Leanne
      Team Sam Vander Wielen LLC

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