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Is It Legal to Copy Content From a Website?

No. That was easy. It is not legal to copy any material from any website, book, newspaper, e-book, journal, or other document. You may only copy content from another source when you have the author's permission.

Then why do news stories, photos, and other online content appear on multiple sites, sometimes word for word? Isn't that copying material from one website to another? Maybe not. Digital content has the same copyright protection as offline content. However, sometimes the rules depend on who the copyright owner is or what use is being made of the protected material.

Web Content and Copyright Law

Under Title 17 of the U.S. Code, copyright protection begins when the author creates an original work in a tangible medium. A website is as much a "tangible medium" as a paperback book or a painted canvas. Source code is "original content" in the same way that a draft of a manuscript is "original content."

Ownership and Copyright Infringement

Some written material belongs to the website owner rather than the creator. For instance, a news story written by an AP reporter is not copyrighted by the reporter but by the Associated Press. A website or news station that subscribes to the AP can copy the story verbatim. If another website copies the story, AP can take legal action, but the writer cannot.

Non-digital content protected by copyright law is automatically protected in its digital form. For example, a copyrighted novel in printed and bound form enjoys the same protection in e-book format. Databases and similar data assemblies also enjoy copyright protection as long as they show a certain degree of creativity by the author, such as in their organization or selection.

Contrary to popular belief, website content does not need a copyright notice or symbol on the webpage to be copyrighted. The protection begins with the creation of the work. The same is true of printed material. The creation is sufficient to establish copyright and ownership.

Fair Use

Copyright law allows "fair use" of small parts of copyrighted works without the author's permission. Reviews, research, critiques, and news reports are "fair use." There is no clear separation between "fair use" and "plagiarism," but generally, fair use depends on the content the other writer uses. Quoting one or two lines for a review, with credit to the original source, could be fair use. Using four or five pages likely constitutes plagiarism.

The U.S. Copyright Office maintains a Fair Use Index to help attorneys and non-attorneys alike better understand how the courts have ruled on fair use claims.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it clear that U.S. copyright laws protect materials published on the internet. Internet service providers — companies that only provide business space — may not be liable for copyright infringement in pass-through data such as emails. Hosting companies such as Facebook can escape liability if they remove infringing material upon request.

The DMCA does not affect trademarks. Trademarked material is separate from copyrighted material. A trademark is a visual image (like the "golden arches" of McDonald's) or a slogan (like Nike's "Just Do It") that immediately identifies the company.

Domain names cannot be copyrighted or trademarked. They are unique and registered through ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), but you cannot have a copyright. Once you cease to own the domain, it becomes available for use.

Protecting Your Website Design

Small-business owners depend on their websites' unique design and content. They use social media to increase brand awareness and drive business to their sites. When another business copies a website's design, they also copy its search engine optimization (SEO) and pull traffic away from the original site.

You can protect your web content in several ways. If you build your site with WordPress or other template-based design sites, you can add plug-ins that disable the "right-click" feature. This prevents viewers from easily copying and pasting your images and other content. Other web hosts may provide similar protection for a small fee.

If someone has already copied your content, you need legal advice. Plagiarism is rampant on the internet, with estimates as high as 60% of all sites containing some duplicated content. Your first step should be contacting an intellectual property attorney. They can advise you on your next steps.

Before you can begin any legal action, you must send a "cease and desist" letter to the offending business, asking them to remove the content. They may be unaware of the infringement. For instance, a business site may purchase articles from an online aggregator. You must give them a reasonable time frame to remove the material.

Intellectual Property for Beginners

If you have been the victim of online plagiarism, you need a particular type of attorney. An intellectual property lawyer can explain the laws governing the internet and copyright infringement.

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