Who's in Control of Your Online Content?

Meet the Smiths: They've just been chosen to be the poster family for a Prague grocery store's advertising campaign. But the Smiths are not models or even contest winners -- they're just an ordinary family from O'Fallon, Missouri, whose photo was lifted from the mother's blog, Extraordinary Mommy, for use in a life-size advertisement half a world away.

The store never asked for the Smiths' permission; in fact, the family found out about the ad only by coincidence from a friend living in Prague. The matriarch of the Smith family, Danielle, described the ordeal as "a little flattering and a little creepy" in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Nevertheless, Smith said she's not too keen on spending thousands of dollars to file what could ultimately be an unsuccessful lawsuit against the foreign business.

Although the Smiths' situation is unusual, it is not unprecedented, and it serves as a reminder of the vulnerability of content you choose to post online.  While it's difficult to stop a bad actor set on simply stealing your work, you can obtain a measure of control by licensing your online content. Licensing your work in a clear manner can help good-faith users know what's OK and what's not.

One cheap and easy way to license your work is through a Creative Commons license.  Creative Commons offers six different licenses ranging from the least restrictive (which allows others to do what they will with your work as long they credit you as the original creator) to the most restrictive (which allows others to distribute your work with attribution but prohibits any changes or commercial uses).  CC licenses will work just fine for many typical websites, but be sure to check out CC's "Before Licensing" section to ensure they'll fit with your own purposes.  Plagiarism Today also has a helpful article on how to decide whether to use a CC license. Note that CC licenses only grant copyright permissions; they do not affect rights of publicity or privacy in one's name or likeness (an issue also raised by the Czech advertisement).

Licensing your work through a CC or similar license not only offers you some measure of protection from misuse of your work (alas, it probably wouldn't have helped the Smiths in this case!), it can also help increase traffic to your website by encouraging web users to excerpt, remix, cite, and link back to your work on their sites. 

For more information on how to license your online content, see the CMLP Legal Guide

(Courtney French is a rising second-year law student at Georgetown University and a CMLP legal intern.)

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