Copyright on the Web
Many people who build web pages – even some professional web designers – have the attitude that copyright laws don’t apply to the web. This is absolutely not true, and website owners (and others) can get in a lot of trouble for violating copyright laws.
Dispelling Copyright Myths with Copyright Facts
To understand how copyright laws affect websites, start by dispelling some copyright myths. A lot of what people think they know about copyrights is wrong!
Here are the basic facts about copyrights:
(1) Creative works are automatically protected by copyright law the moment they are created. It’s not necessary to register with the copyright office in order to be legally protected, although there are some benefits of registering (which we won’t discuss here).
(2) No copyright notice is needed. Creative works are fully protected by copyright law even if there is no “copyright” notice.
(3) Creative works are protected by copyright wherever they are displayed and published, even on websites.
(4) Modifying or changing a creative work does not make it legal for you to use.
(5) Copying something for non-profit purposes, or giving away the copies, is still a violation of copyright laws.
The most fundamental rule of all is the simplest: unless you created the work, or obtained permission, you can’t use it.
There are exceptions to this basic rule, mostly covered under what is referred to as fair use doctrine. For example, you can make limited use of copyrighted works for purposes of parody, review, or education, and you can also make personal backup copies of copyrighted works you have purchased. However, the fair use exceptions are limited and specific; unless you really understand them, it’s best to follow the general rule and not use someone else’s creative work.
You may also use creative works if the copyright has expired. However, determining when a copyright expires is not always simple, due to changes in the law over time, and other factors. There’s a good guide to copyright expiration provided by Cornell University.
The Consequences of Violating Copyrights
When you violate someone’s copyright, you risk several possible responses.
Public Exposure and Outrage
Judith Griggs, the publisher of Cooks Source (a regional) food magazine, learned firsthand how outraged people become when work is stolen. In November,, Griggs copied an article she found on the web and used it in her magazine. When the original author protested, Griggs’ dismissively (and incorrectly) replied that “the web is considered public domain” and the original author should be glad that Griggs had edited and improved the article!
When the story got out on the Internet, people quickly found many other instances of stolen materials used in Cooks Source. They deluged Griggs, the magazine, and their advertisers with thousands of outraged complaints. Advertisers quickly pulled their ads. The magazine was forced to shut down, and Griggs herself was forced into seclusion.
DMCA Takedown Requests
In the United States, web-hosting companies were legally liable for copyright violations on websites they hosted. Since it was impossible for hosting companies to police every website they hosted, congress included provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 that stated hosting companies would not be held liable if they promptly removed infringing materials when notified. (The notification process has become known as a DMCA takedown request.)
If the creator of a work finds that you have stolen it and used it on your website, they can contact the hosting company and file a takedown request. The hosting company will remove the material within 48 hours of the request. *In many cases, they will avoid further liability by shutting down the entire site, even though they are not required to do so.*
Licensing Fees, Fines, and Legal Fees
Many rights management companies aggressively pursue violators. When their automated web crawlers find unauthorized use of their materials, their lawyers send a letter demanding back payment of licensing fees and royalties. These fees can be thousands of dollars per violation!
If you choose to ignore or fight the demand, you may be held liable for punitive damages and legal fees. A bill that started out at a couple of thousand dollars can ultimately cost you tens of thousands.
The companies that have been most aggressive in going after violators include GettyImages and their subsidiaries, and the major music licensing agencies (ASCAP, SECAC, and BMI).
When in Doubt
The message of this article is simple: creative works are protected by copyright laws, and, except in very narrow circumstances, you can’t copy or use them. The costs of violating copyrights can be very high in personal, business, and financial terms.
When in doubt, don’t use it! If you are having a website build, choose a responsible professional designer who understands copyright laws.