personal isn’t private: why you can’t use things only licensed for personal use on your blog

personal isn't private

Important: I’m not a lawyer; please don’t read this post and say “well, that’s all I need to know!” There are definitely things I’m missing here, and if you’re concerned about potential legal trouble resulting from your blog or social media posts, you’ll need to do lots of homework.

I got my first ever email from a reader recently! I was hoping it was going to be someone complimenting me on my shiny, shiny hair but no dice. Instead, it was someone who told me, as gently as possible, that I was wrong when I said that blogging can’t be considered personal use, and so you can’t use things that are licensed for personal use only when you’re blogging.

I get where that reader, and where lots of other commenters I’ve seen on other blogs, are coming from. You’re posting your own words about your own experiences, and that’s inherently personal. And if your blog isn’t monetized, you’re good to go, right?

Not quite. Let’s try out a different scenario: you’re sitting on your front step, it’s a beautiful day, and you’ve decided to enjoy the sunshine by getting totally naked. Your neighbour’s like, uh, what the hell, and calls the police. The cops show up and you explain to them that, hey, public nudity might be a crime but you’re not in public. You’re on your own front step, after all. It’s yours. It’s personal.

Except that everyone can see you. Your property or not, you’re out in public.

I think a lot of the confusion I see regarding the copyright issue comes from the word personal. Of course your blog is personal. Everything about it is shaped by your experiences, your goals, and your personality. But publishing it online means that whatever you’re putting out there, everyone can see it. It’s personal, but it isn’t private. And when you’re not in private, the rules are different.

Think of the warnings at the beginnings of movies. You may have bought it, but you’re still not legally allowed to copy it, distribute it, or show it publicly, even if you’re not profiting from it. While it’s your personal copy, there are restrictions on what you’re legally allowed to do with it. Hurl the disc into the sun? Go for it! Rip it and burn a copy for Uncle Bob? Nope. Haul a projector into the middle of a public park so you can graciously allow everyone and their mother to see your favourite movie for free? Also nope, and this is probably the closest example to our blog situation.

Maybe your blog is low-traffic enough that you think you won’t get in trouble for using an image in spite of its licensing requirements. Maybe your neighbourhood is low-traffic enough that you think you can get away with that awesome roadside sunbathing. And maybe these things have proved true — so far. All it takes is one annoyed viewer to get you in serious trouble.

When I wrote about copyright issues before, I mentioned that technology keeps getting better and better when it comes to image identification. If you’ve ever used Google Images’ reverse-search feature, you’ll know that it’s easy to identify the source of an image. You’ll also know that you’ll also bring up just about every other site that’s ever posted that image. The larger stock image companies have been known to use technology like this to track down unlicensed usage of their images and smack the users with ridiculously large fines. This is only going to get more and more common as the technology improves, and as more rights-holders realize they can profit hugely from this.

Another argument I keep seeing is that because a blogger isn’t earning money from their blog, it doesn’t count as a commercial venture. And that’s just not true. It might not be commecial for you, but if it’s hosted on a site like WordPress or Blogger, or you’ve got your own domain you pay to have hosted, it’s certainly commercial for them — either you’re paying them or they’re putting ads on your site. After all, they’re businesses. And just like any business worth their salt, they’ve used the TOS agreement to put the responsibility on you, the user of their service, to only post things you have the rights to. Anything you post is your responsibility, legally and financially.

To reiterate: if you are paying for domain hosting, or if your blog’s host puts advertisements on your blog, or any money has changed hands (or could potentially change hands) for any reason as a result of your blog, it cannot be considered personal. And on the off-chance that it doesn’t fit that criteria, you can still be in murky legal territory just by posting it publicly. As the person posting, you are the one who is legally and financially responsible for any misuse of content that isn’t your own, even if that misuse was not intentional.

(Was that enough emphatic formatting? If this were the 90s I would have used a blink tag just to be sure.)

One last, personal note: I cringe so hard every time I see a photo credited to Tumblr, Pinterest, WeHeartIt, Google Images, or anything like that, without adding in the username of the person who created it. Tumblr didn’t create the image — a Tumblr user did. Not only are you posting it without permission, you’re attributing creatorship to someone else, which comes with its own potential legal problems — if it’s in any way objectionable (and let’s face it, everything’s objectionable to someone or another) in a way that could harm the brand you’ve associated it with, they may take action against you. On a lesser scale, though, and the reason it’s a huge pet peeve for me: it’s just really careless, and super-tacky.

Basically, all this boils down to “don’t use stuff without permission,” as I stressed last time I ranted on this topic. If you don’t have the time to ask, to properly source, and/or to make your own stuff instead, you definitely don’t have time for a legal battle in which you’re absolutely in the wrong.

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