Elance Blog

Is This Legal? A Guide To Avoiding Copyright Issues and Plagiarism

It’s your responsibility, professionally and legally, to provide your clients with original work. This article covers the basics of what you as a contractor need to know about copyright law. The content in this article should not be construed as legal advice. If you need assistance, you should consult an attorney.

Copyright law is a frequently discussed and frequently misunderstood topic in the freelance world, and there's probably no other topic that generates a larger volume of well-meaning but incorrect advice. Understanding the basics is a responsibility of professional freelancers, whether you're a writer, designer, editor, or web developer.

Copyright infringement is easier and more common than ever before, but international agreements on copyright law– and a bevy of new legal services – have also made enforcement easier.

Bring On The Lawyers:

The online world of digital technology has made it far easier for people to steal or appropriate copyrighted work, but it's also spawned legions of new copyright enforcers, according to the L.A. Times. More than a dozen new firms (with and without lawyers) offer services that look for online content and find unauthorized copies of it online.

Copyright Law:
The Berne Convention set forth an international agreement on intellectual property rights. It applies to the rights of authors (and artists and other creators) who are nationals or residents in the participating countries. The Union comprises well over 100 countries, listed online here.

According to the UK Copyright Service, the creator of a work has the sole right to authorize translations, public performance, or adaptations of that work. The copyright holder also maintains the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, or alter the work. Buyers looking for providers on Elance to "re-write" or translate or adapt someone else's work need the permission of the person who owns the copyright.

This is nearly identical to U.S. copyright law (title 17, U.S. Code), which provides legal protection to the authors of original works including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection applies to both published and unpublished works.

Register Your Work:

You can register your work online at the UK Copyright Service. The fee is £39 for 5 years or £64 for 10 years, for each work that you register and you can register a website, logo, audio files, photographs, literary work, software, and art and design work. You can register your work at the U.S. Copyright Office for $35 (for a basic claim in an original work) or $65 (for a group of published photos); fees range depending on the number and type of works you register. You're not required to register copyright for your work – you own what you create as soon as you create it. But registration can help. If someone snitches your work or publishes an adaptation of it, or a pirated version of it, how do you prove you created it? Registration is the easy way.

Protecting Your Work:
It’s long been suggested that one can use the “poor man’s copyright” by mailing oneself a copy of the work by certified or registered mail. This is a myth. There are dozens of ways to fake or forge this. If you want a record – evidence that will stand up in court – register your copyright. To protect your work from unauthorized use online, whether it's registered or not, you can run an occasional search through google.com or copyscape.com or plagium.com or several similar sites. The tineye.com site is a good source for checking images. Contact the owner of a site – or the ISP that hosts it – if you find your work online where it doesn’t belong.

Though the period of protection under copyright law does vary among countries, the protection under the Berne Convention lasts for the life of the author plus another 50 years. After that period, if copyright is not renewed (often by an heir of the creator), the work will fall into the public domain. In the U.S. the duration is the author’s life plus 70 years, though there are several exceptions – check the FAQ on the U.S. Copyright Office for details.

Plagiarism and Copyright:
Generally speaking, plagiarism is an academic issue – students who copy someone else's work and submit it as their own are guilty of plagiarism, which is unethical and an academic violation. Copyright infringement is a legal issue and is prosecuted in a court of law. Stealing or borrowing or making use of someone else's work can be both plagiarism and copyright infringement, but you're not likely to be sued for plagiarism because it’s not illegal. For a discussion of the differences, check out the following resources here and here.

What Is Fair Use?

In copyright law, "fair use" is also sometimes called free use, fair practice, or fair dealing. It's probably one of the most misunderstood issues in copyright law, and it's frequently and wrongly claimed as an excuse for copyright infringement. Under this section of copyright law, you may use a quotation from another's work, or an excerpt, but you can do this only if your use of the excerpt is justified, and if you don't use any more than what's necessary. You should cite not only the name of the author but also the source of the published material. The "fair use" of copyrighted material is most common in news reporting, in book reviews, or when material is quoted for private or educational use.

Several factors are considered, including the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the original copyrighted work, the portion of the original that was used, and the effect on the market or value of the original caused by the excerpted use. There is no certain percentage of a work that qualifies as fair use. You can't safely borrow a certain number of lines or words, or a percentage of a written work or portion of an image, without permission of the owner. Giving the copyright owner credit for the material is not the same as receiving permission.

So What Can I Use?
Copyright applies when you see the © symbol, and copyright applies when there is no symbol. If images or text content are published online, that doesn't mean they're free for the taking. Copying or re-writing or adapting someone else’s work is a breach of copyright; it's illegal.

Webcopyplus, a marketing firm, learned how expensive copyright infringement can be when they had to pay $4,000 for a photo that's worth about $10. In "Legal Lesson Learned: Copywriter Pays $4,000 for $10 Photo," Webcopyplus explained that the firm's copywriters thought online images with no copyright notice were somehow in the public domain and available for anyone's use – an expensive lesson.

Top Tips To Avoid Legal Problems:


  • Do not "rewrite" content for a client unless you are certain that the client owns the original.
  • Do not use any photos or graphics you find online. They're all copyrighted, unless the website specifically states that they are public domain, clip art, or licensed for your use.
  • If your client wants you to copy text or images from someone else's website, don't do it.
  • Beware of jobs and clients who specify "must pass Copyscape."
  • If you're using stock images, pay for the rights to use them and note restrictions. Some images, for example, are fine for use as "illustrative material" on a website or brochure, but cannot be used for a logo or company banner.
  • Be suspicious when a client wants you to create a .doc file from a .pdf file. If the client says he owns it but doesn't have the original, find out why.
  • Don't bid on jobs asking you to download material from other websites – report the job as a violation.
  • If you're not sure whether it's a violation, report it anyway – Elance will check into it.


Make sure you understand at least the basics of how the laws work, avoid projects that are or may be illegal, and report any that are questionable. Elance offers a number of handy services to clients and contractors, but is not responsible for violations of copyright law that might occur on a project. You are – and you owe it to your clients to understand the basics of copyright law and abide by them.

More details on U.S. copyright law are available online from the U.S. Copyright Office.

A comprehensive collection of resources on international copyright laws is available online from the UK Copyright Office.

About the Author

Kelly Andersson (MontanaLady) has a 24-year history of writing for publication;
she's been online since 1987 and is an award-winning writer and website developer. 



As a university professor I would also like to add this comment: I see many jobs posted by students who want papers written. Some of the assignments I even recognize, as I now teach or a large online university. Now we might contend that we do not know that this is going to be used wholesale by the student, submitting it for credit as if it were his/her own work. Yes, we might be that short sighted or wish that we were. But we are no better than a custom essay mill, only the student stands a far better chance of not getting caught. It is a violation of academic integrity guidelines of all universities to submit papers for others or have others submit papers for you. There is no more scurrilous way to earn a few bucks than to allow someone to slide through the university system by cheating--off you.

This is far different from a grad student who needs help editing his dissertation--all grad students pay editors to do this as part of the process, and if ESL is in the picture, probably more than one. It is not the same as someone writing a paper who will list you as a co author.

It is a line everyone clearly knows where to draw. It's true these are easy jobs to get and easy money to make--as how discerning can the clients be? But it is wrong. Let's refuse to do it. Elance should have a policy that states students cannot post jobs that consist of writing college (or high school!) papers for them.

Thanks for allowing me to comment on this policy that is near and dear to my heart.


Great comment, cm.

Just to add--while jobs do get posted online by students, it is against the policy we have set out in our Terms of Service and we monitor daily for jobs that are in violation.

The policy can be found on Page 3 of our Site Usage Policy, under Prohibited Job Postings. Our Terms of Service can be found here: http://www.elance.com/p/legal.html