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Understanding copyright law to stay out of criminal court

Understanding copyright law and ensuring that you use other people's ideas, writings and other creative products with their permission doesn't just protect you from potential civil lawsuits. It can also keep you from facing criminal charges. The lines between civil copyright infringement and criminal copyright infringement aren't always clear, so it's best not to gamble on your freedom.

One of the best ways not to get yourself involved in copyright issues is to avoid using other people's work at all. If you are going to use someone else's work, then ensure that you are doing so with permission. An oral agreement granting you permission is rarely enough to protect you if the other person decides to claim you've stolen his or her work. Working with an attorney to obtain the proper permissions -- and documenting them appropriately via a contract -- is often the best approach when you want to cover all your bases.

Sometimes, use of intellectual or artistic property is covered by fair use, which means you can use it without obtaining specific written permission. Fair use is usually reserved for non-profit or journalistic purposes. If you are conducting educational research or writing a criticism of work, then you are often able to show it or quote from it without copyright infringement. Even then, though, you have to appropriately credit the source.

If you believe that you have followed guidelines in using someone else's work under fair use or other legal channels and you have been accused of copyright infringement, then a strong defense is needed. Working with an attorney to understand all your options and plan a defense is a good idea.

Source: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, "How to avoid copyright infringement -- Legal action to protect a copyright," accessed April 29, 2016

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