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Can I Place Copyrighted Works on My Website?

Copyright Law in Cyberspace

The proliferation of the Internet has brought about a host of questions and problems for copyright owners and for the millions of individuals who view, download, upload, and transmit works subject to copyright. Because the vast growth of the Internet is a relatively recent phenomenon, copyright law in cyberspace is still in a state of development. Yet basic copyright principles form a good foundation from which to determine whether a particular use of copyrighted materials on the Internet does, or does not, violate the law.

How to Acquire Copyright Protection

To acquire copyright protection, a work must be:

  1. Original,
  2. Creative (though only minimally so), and
  3. Must be fixed in a tangible medium.

The work is instantly protected by copyright once it meets these three requirements. An author doesn't need to file anything or to put the word copyright, or its symbol, anywhere on the work. Filing with the U.S. Copyright Office, however, provides additional protections.

What Does Copyright Protect?

Copyrights apply to literary, artistic, musical and other creative works, including books, stories, articles, poems, drawings, photographs, computer programs and images, movies and other audiovisual works, song lyrics, sculpture, architectural works, pantomimes and choreography, and sound recordings.

Copyright Infringement

Copyright law protects a creative work for the life of the author or creator, plus 70 years. If there is more than one author, it extends for seventy years beyond the last surviving author. For a work for hire -- one produced on behalf of an employer -- the copyright is 95 years after publication, or 120 years after creation, whichever is shorter.

To determine whether one has violated another's copyright, one must first consider what rights a copyright protects. The most fundamental of these is the right to reproduce the work. The author also enjoys the exclusive rights to distribute the work, adapt or make derivative works from it, and publicly perform or display the work. Placing someone else's copyrighted work on your website may violate any or all of these rights.

Exceptions to Copyright Protection

  • Fair Use: One of the most important exceptions to copyright protection is the fair use doctrine. This doctrine allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission. Whether a given use of the material is fair use depends on a number of factors, including the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount of the copyrighted work that is used, and the effect of the use on the market for the original.The Supreme Court has held that fair use may include a parody of the original work.
  • Public Domain: A work enters the public domain when the copyright expires. It will also become public property if the author relinquishes the work to the public by disclaiming the copyright. A work on the Internet that isn't clearly marked as copyrighted, however, is not necessarily public property -- remember, copyright attaches as soon as the creative, original work is fixed in a tangible medium, electronic files included.

How to Avoid Copyright Problems

The best way to avoid a copyright problem is to secure written permission to use the work from the copyright holder. Since copyright guards against unauthorized use, once the author consents to your use of a creative work -- article, photo, poem, etc.-- you are not violating the copyright. It's important, however, to secure the appropriate permission. An author who consents to a teacher photocopying from his manuscript for a class does not consent to the teacher's posting the work on the Internet, unless the agreement expressly includes that permission.

Because the potential for copyright violation is so great on the Internet, in 1998, Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to clarify certain issues. The DMCA limits the liability of Internet service providers for copyright infringement on the part of their customers. But it also created prohibitions aimed at punishing persons who remove or alter copyright protections.

Next Steps

The ease with which information is copied and transferred on the Internet creates numerous ways to violate copyright laws. Just because many people violate those laws, knowingly or unknowingly, however, doesn't make the violation disappear. If you have copyright questions involving the Internet, consult with an experienced intellectual property attorney.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified business attorney to help you identify how to best protect your business' intellectual property.

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