This is a post from the Firefly archives – timeless advice, as relevant today as it was in 2015! 

Memes, public Instagram images, and screenshots of funny things that’ve made it into the media via Facebook are just a few examples of the popular content we see constantly in today’s digital world.

They’re increasingly popular across the internet for both commercial and non-commercial reasons, and with the ease of consumption and sharing, it’s no surprise the lines are a little blurred between what constitutes copyright infringement or image plagiarism.

Avoiding hot water

PRs and journalists are not immune to this – we use and re-use a vast amount on content on a daily basis. For example. someone’s hashtagged a nice picture with your client’s brand on it? Seen a funny picture in a forum that would make a viral-worthy news piece? Great! But before you use these for your own advantage, consider these tips to avoid image plagiarism:

1. Make sure it is credible

Is the person who posted this image the first person to post it? Try your best to ensure that it’s original content. Likewise, if the content is associated with a news event, it’s vital you’re publishing true information and won’t have to retract items later.

2. Get consent

Always get in contact with the person who posted the image and ask their permission to use it. You can tweet them, direct message, comment – it all depends on the platform, but make sure you get consent. If the picture is on sites such as Flickr, you might also need to consider Creative Commons attribution. Don’t forget, if you’re using the image for a client or employer, it’s being used commercially, rather than for personal use.

3. Attribute the author

Again, this will depend on any applicable Creative Commons licences, but if you’re using someone else’s image it’s generally good practice to attribute their name. Better yet, tag the social media account it was sourced from or embed the image directly from the source.

4. Do it yourself

If possible, why not try and take a picture yourself? In a lot of cases, this might be just as easy and save the wait-time for user consent. You need is your smartphone and a few filters or an editing app, and you’ve got a picture!

5. Or keep it clean

While user-generated images can make excellent and authentic social fodder, any media buffs concerned about getting into trouble can always stick to stock images. They aren’t always as engaging (and they can cost you money), but you’ll know you’re not breaking the law. When you’re using free stock images, please do note that it’s still polite to reference the creator! For ideas, check out Unsplash, Pexels and PxHere.

That said, it’s always worth looking at the terms and conditions before you use them. For example, you can’t usually use a stock photo as part of a logo or trademark.

In practice, image plagiarism online is a bit of a legal grey area, it’s better to be safe than to lose a client contract or risk fines. Photo agencies have expensive lawyers and aren’t afraid to use them.

Learning more…

Getty Images has teamed up with the BAPLA (British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies) and PACA (Picture Archive Council of America) to set up, a useful guide to using stock photography and understanding image rights. There is a helpful FAQ, which is well worth bookmarking.

(Photo credit: Bonnie Kittle, Unsplash)

Picture yourself at work. You get an email from a journalist accusing you of plagiarising someone else’s work – basically stealing.

This happened to me recently. I had submitted an opinion piece – just like this. I couldn’t believe the accusation – I’ve even blogged about the harm that plagiarism causes.

It turns out that someone had copied paragraphs I’d created previously, ‘reproduced’ it as their own, and their work was already published. The only way of proving my innocence was evidence that I originated the piece, and when and where the original piece was published.

Is this no big deal, bruised egos or a more serious matter of tarnished reputations and damaged relationships?

Having been accused, I vigorously defended my case. I had a reputation to repair. But how much time and attention would the media give to a bleating PR about their work being plagiarised? Thankfully, I was taken seriously.

It tarnished the relationship and eroded trust between the journalist, myself and our agency, though temporarily. It affected the relationship and trust between the journalist and the editor who thought the journalist was sloppy for attempting to get plagiarised content published.

And what happened to the real plagiariser? I won’t name them, but it was an HR consultant who wrongly thought no one would notice. I hope they now understand what does. It rumbles the cheats.

We resolved the situation quickly but it did serve as a stark reminder that plagiarism is still rife although rarely discussed. How many conversations about plagiarism have you been involved in?

The challenge to eradicate this malpractice falls to senior management. “Just don’t do it” is not adequate. Communications teams must be educated on why exactly they shouldn’t do it. To do this, senior managers should seek to understand why it happens in the first place.

The main reasons are:

The person/people at fault always ‘lacks’ something. Let’s make sure that teams understand the risks of plagiarising existing materials and always have what they need to create unique, insightful content and you wipe risk of plagiarism.

If you’re in any doubt that plagiarism, however innocently, might be occurring in your workplace, here are my plagiarism catcher golden rules. From the do’s and don’ts to the tools you can use to spot plagiarised work, you’ll find everything you need on how to stamp out plagiarism and protect your company from its consequences. Click here to read my golden rules.

[This piece first appeared on PR Moment]

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