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Can I Place Copyrighted Works on My Website?

Placing copyrighted works on your webpage without the copyright owner's permission could be copyright infringement. But copyright infringement has certain exceptions, like fair use. Many copyright owners offer licenses or issue permissions, allowing others to use their copyrighted works.

Whether you can place copyrighted works on your website depends on the copyright and the copyright owner. This article covers the various issues when placing copyrighted works on social media platforms.

Copyright Law in Cyberspace

The widespread use of the internet has brought about many questions and problems for copyright owners. It also affects the millions of individuals who view, download, upload, and send works subject to copyright.

Because the vast growth of the internet is a relatively recent phenomenon, copyright law in cyberspace is still developing. 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 Get Copyright Protection

To get copyright protection, a work must be:

  1. Original
  2. Creative (though only minimally so); and
  3. Fixed in a tangible medium

The work instantly has copyright protection once it meets these three requirements. An author doesn't need to file anything or put the word "copyright" or the copyright symbol anywhere on the work.

Yet, filing for federal copyright registration with the U.S. Copyright Office provides more protections. The U.S. Copyright Office offers online registration for copyrights. All U.S. registered copyrights are public records on the U.S. Copyright Office's online database. The database is the Copyright Public Records Search.

What Does Copyright Protect?

Copyright protections apply to literary, artistic, musical, and other creative works. Some examples include:

  • Books
  • Stories
  • Articles
  • Poems
  • Drawings
  • Photographs
  • Computer programs
  • Images
  • Movies
  • Audiovisual works
  • Song lyrics
  • Sculpture
  • Architectural works
  • Pantomimes
  • Choreography
  • Sound recordings

The work must be written down, recorded, or accessible through sight or sound. It must be in a fixed form.

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 when a use violates another's copyright, one must first consider what rights a copyright protects. The author enjoys the exclusive rights to:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Distribute the work
  • Adapt or make derivative works from the work
  • Publicly perform the work
  • Display the work

Placing someone else's copyrighted work on your website may violate all these rights. It would be best to prepare to respond to copyright claims as a website owner. If someone believes their copyright is infringed, they may send you a cease and desist letter. They can also sue you. You may be subject to statutory damages if found liable for copyright infringement. Also, if you end up in a legal dispute, you may be responsible for your attorney fees and the opposing parties' fees if you lose the case.

Exceptions to Copyright Protection

There are some circumstances where you can use a copyrighted work without getting permission from the owner.

The two most common exceptions are for fair use and the public domain.

Fair Use

The fair use doctrine allows the limited use of copyrighted material without permission. Whether a given use of the material is fair use depends on several factors, including:

  • The purpose and character of the use
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount of use of the copyrighted work
  • The effect of the use on the market for the original

The Supreme Court has held that fair use may include a parody, satire, or commentary 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. Yet, a work on the internet that isn't marked as copyrighted is not necessarily public property. Remember, copyright attaches as soon as the original work is fixed in a tangible medium.

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. You can place a copyright notice on your own original content, though it is not necessary. Since copyright guards against unauthorized use, once the author consents to using a creative work (e.g., article, photo, poem, or meme), you are not violating the copyright.

Yet, it's important to secure the appropriate permission. An author who consents to a teacher photocopying from his manuscript for a class does not agree to the teacher's posting the work on the internet unless the agreement expressly includes that permission.

The potential for copyright violations is 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. It also created prohibitions to punish persons who remove or alter copyright protections.

Get Legal Advice

As a small business owner, intellectual property, including website content, is one of your most valuable assets. The ease with which information is copied and transferred on the Internet creates many ways to violate copyright laws. If you have copyright questions about the internet or other intellectual property rights concerns, consult an experienced intellectual property attorney.

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