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Copyright 101 for Online Sellers

What you need to know to protect yourself and your listings

Editor’s note: The information provided here is for educational purposes and, though The Online Seller did its best to make it as accurate as possible, this article should not be taken as legal advice. Sellers should consult an attorney if they have questions about copyright laws.

You know you’ve experienced it. You’re online researching how your competition has priced a product similar to yours when you see a photo that looks very familiar. When you read the description, you recognize the language, too.

After reading the text a second time you realize what happened: Your competitor didn’t take that photo or write that description. You did.

For an online seller, an experience like this can be frustrating. You may feel like there’s nothing you can do—and you may wonder if the other merchant has the right to use your image and/or text.

The answer is no, thanks to copyright law. Not sure what copyright law entails? Read on and learn how you can protect your rights, and how to avoid unknowingly infringing on the rights of others.

What is copyright?

“Copyright means just what it says, ‘the right to make copies of a photo, artwork, film, literary works or text,'” explains Cliff Ennico, an attorney and eBay expert. “Whoever holds the copyright on something has the exclusive right to exploit that something for profit for a certain period of time.”

For text, that time period is the life of the author plus 70 years, and you don’t have to register the content you create—whether text or images—for it to be protected, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.

“You may, however, have to prove that you created the text before the other person ripped you off,” Enicco adds. “Otherwise, they may have the audacity to claim that you ripped them off!”

“If you fail to add a copyright notice, people may assume they have the right to use your text and photo for their own purposes”

To help protect your descriptions and photos from being used by others, claim your copyright. You can do this by adding phrases to your listing, like “Copyright 2012,” followed by your name, or “Photo by” and then your name, Ennico suggests.

“This is called the ‘statutory copyright notice,'” he explains. “If you fail to include this with your text and photo, people may assume you do not care about your intellectual property rights, and will believe they have the right to use your text and photo for their own purposes.”

Ennico adds that you should keep a record of when you post text or other copyrighted works online, so you’ll know when you published the items—first.

Getting permission allows use

Even if you don’t post copyright notices like these in your listings, others still have no right to use your work if you haven’t given permission—unless they claim fair use, which we’ll explain later. If you give permission, then they can use your content.

Now, if you’re reading this and freaking out because you recently used a catalog image from a distributor in your listings without first getting permission, you don’t necessarily have to worry. Your contract with the distributor will likely say if you can use the photos or text in the catalog, Ennico explains.

“If that language isn’t there, you have to contact them and get their permission,” he continues. “Try to get a ‘blanket’ permission, so you don’t have to go back each time you want to use something from the catalog.”

eBay’s guidelines state that sellers can use text and photos in the eBay Product Catalog without any fear of infringing on someone else’s copyright. These may include descriptions and photos other eBay sellers created, since eBay adds user-generated content to its catalog.

A seller may have his or her text or images in the eBay catalog without knowing, but sellers can opt out of this.

But, permission won’t make you immune

But just to be clear, getting permission won’t protect sellers from everything. Even if an online seller gets the OK to use a description or image, the image or text used must describe the item they’re selling exactly, Ennico reports. If it doesn’t, merchants could face problems with buyers, who may claim fraud or misrepresentation.

“That will get you thrown off of eBay and Amazon in a real hurry,” he adds.

Antiques and collectibles sellers should especially ignore the urge to use others’ photos or images because “no two [antiques or collectibles] are the same,” Ennico continues.

You are not looking to become a legal expert—you just want to make money selling online. If you want to use someone else’s stuff, get their permission

Fair use

Now, there is a legal standard called fair use that allows people to quote from published works. This is what makes it OK for students to write research papers and quote other materials.

“But you must comply strictly with the rules if you are claiming fair use” and using someone’s content, Ennico tells us.

Under the fair use doctrine of the U.S. copyright statute, it is OK to use “limited portions” of a work for commentary, criticism, news reporting and scholarly reports, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.

“There’s a good book called Fair Use, Free Use and Use by Permission, by Lee Wilson, available online for about $20, which should be in your reference library,” Ennico adds. “It tells you how to go about getting permission and how to track down copyright owners. But you are not looking to become a legal expert—you just want to make money selling online. If you want to use someone else’s stuff, get their permission.”

And if you’re worried that your rights may be infringed on, keep your eye out. Only the copyright owner can report copyright infringement, writes Sarah Feingold, Etsy’s in-house attorney, in a blog post.

Ennico adds that, often, an online seller may notice copyright violations, but they don’t report it.

“They don’t have the money to launch an expensive and time-consuming infringement suit, but if you are ripping off someone who is a lot bigger than you (for example, a luxury brand such as Tiffany’s or Louis Vuitton), you are almost certain to hear from their attorneys,” he adds.

Feel like you know a little more about copyright law? We hope so, and in our next article we’ll take a look at how marketplaces eBay, Bonanza and Etsy deal with copyright and copyright infringement.

About the author

Olga Munoz
Olga Munoz is editor of In addition to writing news and feature articles about e-commerce, selling trends, online marketing and other topics of interest to online sellers, Olga manages the site's social media efforts. A journalism graduate of Chico State, Olga says her favorite part of being a journalist is learning interesting facts that help put stories into perspective, attending industry events and meeting interesting people "that leave you smiling, even in tough situations." Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.

  • The whole copyright/patent paradigm has created a bunch of people who ‘spin’ or regurgitate with slightly different language/style the same fundamental/underlying principles.

  • Mazgigs

    I have registered designs  and send notice of infringements to ebay vero team but they have not
    taken down the infringements in the last 12 months on my behalf.
    Can you help me with this 

    • Sonic

      Did you actually obtain a VeRo account that you are able to sign into using a specific VeRO account password or did you just send the form to the VeRo department and expect action? Unless you are a registered VeRo account holder, they cant and won’t do anything for you.

      Now if you do have an approved and active VeRo account and have loggen into that account and sent them NOIs and they are not responding, email or call them and I assure you they will respond accordingly.

  • Boldnbrazen

    Does this also apply to Canada?  Thank you

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