Copyright Law on the Internet

Although many people recognize the Internet as a readily available one-stop shop for information, entertainment and communication, few realize that it also represents the "largest threat to copyright since its inception." (1)

Copyright is a form of legal protection for the intellectual property rights of authors of original works, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, architectural and other intellectual works. Internet copyright laws give the original authors or artists the right to exclude others from copying their work or claiming it as their own. While online copyright protection does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, it may protect the way these things are expressed.

Automatic Copyrights

In the United States, federal copyrights begin automatically when a protected work becomes fixed in a tangible form, such as a book or a picture. This right also applies to works saved on computer disks and hard drives as well as on film or tape. Many Internet users unintentionally violate copyright laws on the internet, owing to a mistaken assumption that any work not labeled with a copyright is not protected. Thus, they believe they can use, post, copy or reproduce anything found on the Internet.

The correct form of a copyright notice is "Copyright or © (date) by (name of author or owner)". However, under the Berne Convention, copyrights for creative works are automatically in force for everything created privately and originally after April 1, 1989 without being asserted or declared. In other words, an author does not need to "register" or "apply for" a copyright and internet material is already covered under the law. As soon as a work is "fixed," that is, written or recorded in some physical medium, its author is automatically entitled to all copyrights for the work unless and until he or she explicitly grants rights to others or to the public domain.

Registration of Copyrights

Nevertheless, promptly registering works still provides significant legal advantages. For example, you must register a work in order to sue anybody else for infringement. Also, if you register your work within three months from the date it was created, or at least prior to the date of infringement, you can collect statutory damages. Otherwise, you may only file suit for actual damages, which depending upon the situation, may be minimal. Thus, timely registration can make the difference between an award of $10 award and an award for $150,000 or more.

Although e-mail messages and trademark websites enjoy copyright protections, it is important for authors and artists to bear in mind that these rights are subject to several limitations. For example, only expression is protected, not facts or ideas. Therefore, subsequent or derivative works that are very similar, or even identical, do not necessarily constitute internet copyright violations, especially if they were, in fact, created independently.

Fair Use Laws

Also, copyrights are subject to fair use limitations. These limitations allow for some use of others' works even without prior approval. For example, uses that advance public interests, such as education or scholarship, tend to be deemed as "fair use," especially if only small portions of the original work were copied or if appropriate attribution has been given to the original author or artist. However, uses that generate income for others or interfere with the copyright owner's income generally are not considered "fair use."

Finally, uses of an author's work may be seen as approved by implication, even if the would-be infringer does not have the original author's express permission. For example, when a message is posted to a public e-mail list, both forwarding and archiving are considered to be approved implicitly, unless they have been expressly forbidden.

Nevertheless, Web pages and their contents are covered by copyrights. These rights extend to the:

  • Overall design
  • Links
  • Original text
  • Graphics
  • Audio
  • Video
  • Other unique, original elements

Therefore, it is important for Internet users to bear in mind that copyright laws preclude most uses of other people's works. For example, Internet users cannot transfer graphic images or works from Web sites and post them elsewhere without permission from the owners. Similarly, they cannot scan materials published in periodicals or books and post them on the Web. Although it is okay to use or reproduce some information found on the Internet, it always advisable to ask the author or creator for permission to do so. Requesting permission is not difficult. This is usually accomplished simply via e-mail. In most cases, the owner will quickly grant access. Most important, taking this step can avoid costly litigation!

For more information, or if you are having legal issues regarding technology laws, consult with an intellectual property lawyer in your area to discuss your case.

(1)The Copyright Web site (

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