“If it’s on the internet…”

Illustration depicting a computer dialog box with a downloading copyrighted material concept.

Nearly 2 decades into living with the internet as part of our daily lives, a surprising number of people – and businesses – still seem to think that anything posted on the web is theirs for the taking – to copy, put on their own websites, or incorporate into some other publication.

That’s because most of us have a sort of subconscious conviction that “if it’s on the internet, it’s free.”

In almost every case, our subconscious is wrong. A photo or a video or an article or a piece of art or a song doesn’t become free just because it’s made publicly available on the internet – no more than a book loses its copyright protection when copies are made available at bookstores or the public library.

The internet didn’t change or do away with copyrights. It just made it a lot easier to violate copyrights without really even thinking about it. It’s especially easy with pictures. I’ve worked with many clients who found the perfect picture online, and downloaded a copy to use on their own website or in a catalog. They aren’t bad people, they weren’t trying to steal or infringe. It just didn’t occur to them that somebody else owns the rights to that picture – or, at least it didn’t occur to them until they got a letter from the owner’s lawyer.

But now the New York Public Library is here to save us from that simple, honest mistake. The library just announced its Digital Collections – more than 672,000 digitized images, photos, prints and manuscripts that really are free for the taking. Or, as the library put it when the collection was announced, “No permission required, no hoops to jump through: just go forth and reuse!”

There are two simple lessons to take from this NYPL announcement.

First, if that thing you want to copy or download from the internet doesn’t say you have permission to copy or download it – like the Digital Collection does – you probably don’t have permission to copy or download it.

And second, libraries are awesome.