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Copyright Overview for Groups

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Disclaimer: Please note that the information contained in this fact sheet and any attachments is being provided for informational purposes only and not as part of an attorney-client relationship. The information is not a substitute for expert legal, tax, or other professional advice and counsel tailored to your specific circumstances, and may not be relied upon for the purposes of avoiding any penalties or prosecution. You should consult with a copyright attorney if you have any questions. 

Recently, we have learned of an increase in copyright infringement cases resulting from the ease by which data tools may be used to identify copyright violations and protect copyright owners. An increasing number of groups and individuals have received notices from law firms seeking payment for their clients whose materials have been used without permission. These situations can arise unintentionally by using a photo or image in a group communications such as a newsletter, email, ad, website, etc. that was not owned or permitted. To help groups avoid that situation, we’ve prepared this resource as a copyright law overview for Indivisible groups so they can be aware of potential legal risks when using copyrighted materials. This is not meant to be an exhaustive resource or an alternative to seeking legal counsel. 

What is copyright? 

A form of legal protection for the authors of “original works of authorship,” including photos, artwork, written materials, music, and other intellectual works. Copyright protects actual works, not ideas. 

Copyright protects rights in an original work (published or unpublished), including the right to: 

1. Reproduce the work in any form, including electronically; 

2. Display/perform the work (including by digital transmission such as on a website); 

3. Create an adaptation or other derivative work; and, 

4. Distribute the work by passing it along to others (publishing it in an ad or a mailer, posting on a website, etc.). 

Copyright law protects any and all original work from being used without permission. Generally, unless it falls into one of the exceptions below, any image that is professionally created by someone other than yourself, is subject to copyright–whether registered with the US Patent and Trade Office or not. 

How can I obtain permission to copyrighted works? 

  • Published works → Look at the copyright notice of the published work and contact the author or publisher of the work to get permission to use the work. The copyright owner may require a fee to use the work or limit how you may use it. 
  • Photos and videos → Photographs and videos may belong to the photographer or the company that produced the video. You should not publish photos owned by third parties without consent. As with published works, you should contact the creator or publisher of the work to get permission to use the work for your intended purpose, and they may ask that you pay a fee. 

You should try to communicate with creators or publishers in writing (email), and save any copies of licenses or agreements (contracts) to use copyrighted works. 

Where can I find licensed images that I can use? 

These are sites that include licensed images or content which you can access if you comply with the rules listed on their site for use: 

What kinds of images can my group use that are not subject to copyright and therefore don’t need a license agreement?

  • Any images you create yourself (photographs or graphics) 
  • Any images created by the federal government, including any federal agency (White House photographer, Congressional portraits, NASA, etc.) 
    • Note: Campaign or candidate images likely do not fall under this exception unless they are part of a Member of Congress’s official portrait.