Copyright is a very important part of publishing and has been for centuries, even prior to the modern laws we use to govern it. It has always been important for authors to get credit for their work, even when their work was given away for free.
Copyright on the Internet is a complex issue, and you should not view this guide as legal advice. What this guide will hopefully achieve is to shed some light on how we should use and understand copyright when it comes to work published online.
How Does Copyright Work?
According to the U.S. Copyright Office, a work is copyrighted the moment you make it and store it in some type or form that is “perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device”. In other words, whether you have it in print or on a computer, you hold the copyright to it the moment you finish.
This guide, for example, is my property and becomes my copyright the moment I finish it. No one can take that away from me unless I give them permission. That is the first and most important thing to understand about copyright, even on the Internet: everything is copyrighted to the work’s creator unless otherwise specified.
Can I Use Copyrighted Work from the Internet?
The fact that a work is copyrighted does not mean you cannot use it. After all, artist or writers might as well keep their works in secret diaries if they do not want people to benefit from them. As such, you can usually download it and use it for your own personal use as much as you like. What you normally cannot do is republish it, modify it, or redistribute (i.e. in print or electronic form). For example, downloading a this article, printing it, and passing it out on the street would be forbidden unless I gave you permission to do it.
Generally speaking, most copyright holders would not object to the above example unless they are trying to make money from their works and your redistribution or reprinting in some way hinders that, especially if you sell them.
There are a few instances under which you can use copyrighted work even if all rights are reserved under normal situations. These terms are outlined in the Fair Use clause of the U.S. copyright law, and they mainly apply to educators.
Does That Mean I Can’t Use Anything on the Internet?
Many people who download and reuse copyrighted material they find on the web are honestly just looking for content for their websites or social media profiles. They might be pictures, videos, or songs, and the person who uses them means no harm to the work’s creator.
In these situations, the user should look for legal alternatives. Many copyright content creators want people to be able to redistribute, reuse, or even create derivatives of their works. They essentially have three options:
1. Release their works into the Public Domain and forfeit all copyright
2. Create a license that gives some rights to the user, rather than “all rights reserved”
3. Use a freely-available open license, such as one from Creative Commons.
Because option one is usually undesirable and option two is complicated without an attorney, millions of artists are choosing Creative Commons licenses. You can search for them in Google’s advance search, on Flickr.com (photos), Jamendo.com (music), and many other websites.
Will I Get Sued if…
Knowing what you have now learned about copyright, you still may not be able to answer this question yourself. If you have doubt, it is better to avoid getting yourself into trouble. Copyright infringement convictions in the United States carry heavy fines and can even result in a federal prison sentence (though not usually). According to Manchester managed server host 34SP.com, UK laws have similar restrictions on copyright. Therefore it is best to play it safe and only reuse works from artists who openly permit it.
If you are an artist, writer, or other content creator, you should make sure your publishers are respecting your rights under copyright law. And if you want to share your work with others, you should consider using a Creative Commons or other open content license.
Tavis J. Hampton has been a librarian for eleven years and has given several seminars and training workshops on copyright over the course of his career. He is currently a freelance writer and tech consultant.