How to Use Content That Isn’t Yours

By Matt Cooper | January 26, 2016 |


Keep it 100% legal

In a nutshell, any original image, writing, or recording in a fixed medium (written down or saved as a file) is protected by copyright law. So if you take a photo with your digital camera, you have the rights to that photo immediately. Similarly, when you hit save on a Word doc, you have a copyright to that content. The only notable exceptions are when you create something for work (your employer would own it), or when you use something that already has copyright protection as the basis for your work. That means that your Harry Potter fan fiction, a company blog post, or a Beyonce mash-up you mix probably wouldn’t belong to you.

The same principle applies to brands: Any original content their employees create belongs to the brand.

If you want to use someone else’s content, you should ensure that you:

  • Obtain written permission: Enter a formal agreement with the creator or through the terms of service on a user-generated content site. For example, you can embed YouTube videos wherever you like because all YouTube posters have agreed to its terms of service (including embedding videos by others).
  • Engage in fair use: You’re allowed to copy work to criticize, comment, or parody. When you pull a block quote from Joe Pulizzi’s latest blog post to talk about how brilliant he is, there’s nothing he can do to stop you. But if you copy his entire post, you’re in trouble. Similarly, taking a screen-grab from a movie to create a meme is likely OK.

A good question to determine whether fair use applies: Would your use of the content in any way subtract from the value that would otherwise go to the content creator? If the answer is no, then you should be in the clear to use it.

If you want more detail, here’s a good copyright law overview.

Get an informal OK

Getting written permission is ideal, but you’ll still be on ethical high ground if you ask the creator if you can use the content and you get a less formal “yes” – send a quick email, tweet, or LinkedIn ping.


See? In this tweet exchange, a local TV station asks a person who uploaded his photo of a plane fire. When you reach out, promise to include attribution and a link back to the person’s website to sweeten the deal (and give the much-deserved credit.)

Don’t ask, but do provide credit and links

Always try your best to track down the original host of the content and credit it by linking to it. Many consider links to be a form of currency that provide real value to the content creator in the form of SEO and exposure.

In fact, a lot of content creators are in it just for the exposure; they’ll probably be thrilled you used their image, video, or writing – as long as it’s clear that they’re the brilliant mind behind it. By giving good attribution alone you’re not necessarily in the right legally, but you’re probably still in the right.

Follow these two best practices:

  • Find the original source: In this age of syndicated content, aggregation, and sharing, it can be pretty easy to give credit to the wrong person or build a link to the wrong site. To give credit where it’s due, follow the trail of attribution back to the hosting source. And if you want to be an ethical superstar, copy two sentences from a written piece into your Google search bar (or use a reverse image search for photos, infographics, etc.) to locate the true source. As an example, this phrase pops up several places, but credit should go to the CMI site:


  • Use embed features. Many major social platforms offer codes that allow you to easily embed their content onto your own website. YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook all provide this function. Be sure to read each social platform’s embed policies and terms of service but, generally speaking, content embedded on social sites such as Twitter is often legal to publish as long as you use the platform’s embed code. If you download and republish the asset, you lose the legal authority to have it on your site and make it harder for people to find their way back to the original.

Subscribe to stock-image platforms

If you need an accompanying image for a blog post, in many cases a royalty-free image or illustration will suffice. It’s important to note though that royalty free does not mean that the image is free to use. Royalty-free images have a license fee but you are not required to pay a royalty each time you use the image.

Be sure to read the restrictions outlined in the image provider’s license, which may limit the frequency of an image’s use or preclude its use for commercial purposes. On Shutterstock, for example, you need to identify the expected reach of the image, which determines the fee or image package available.

Use Creative Commons content

Millions of artists and content creators are uploading their work onto the web under a Creative Commons license, which is a more permissive form of copyright. (Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creative content and knowledge through free legal tools. It was popularized by artists who thought their work should be shared.)

You can search for Creative Commons photos on Flickr, for example. Remember – just because a work is listed as Creative Commons doesn’t mean credit isn’t required or restrictions don’t exist. (Most Creative Commons licenses require you to seek permission if you want to use the content for commercial reasons.)

Honor takedown requests

There may be a time when a content creator doesn’t want you to use his content. Take the example I shared at the beginning. Huffington Post credited The Oatmeal for the use of its comic and it used the image file from The Oatmeal site, but it resulted in so many server calls that The Oatmeal wanted it taken down. The Huffington Post eventually apologized for the error, removed the image from the post, and replaced it with a link to The Oatmeal’s website.

Bottom line: If you don’t have legal permission, don’t argue with the creator when he or she comes a-callin’. It creates bad blood and gives the creator ammunition that can be used in court. Apologize and offer to take down the content immediately. If you respond promptly, the owner of that content usually will be understanding and take no further action.

Protect your original content

Since you’re a content creator, too, you may be on the other side of these issues. Want to check on the use of your original content by others? Google and Google image search are the best place to start (though not really scalable if you want to keep tabs on a lot of content). There are a bunch of other tools, including Copyscape, which is a great plagiarism and stolen copy checker.

If you want to get someone to cease, desist, or just give you credit for your original content, here’s a good guide to responding to plagiarism.


Would it be much easier if you could view any content that floats across your screen as fair game for re-posting? Sure, but that approach hurts both content creator and replicator. If we accept the premise that quality content contains value, then we must recognize that value by being respectful to those who produced it.

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute