Copyright Guidelines for the Web

What you can and cannot do on the Internet and the Web

Creative Commons License
Copyright Guildelines for the Web by Walt Howe is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

(last updated 17 September 2022)

The words you are reading were not written by a lawyer or specialist in copyright law. While I believe them to be essentially true, do not rely on them for legal advice.
Copyright is the legal protection against copying given to original works, which may be in printed or photographically or electronically stored words, music, visual arts, and performing arts. The purpose of copyright is not just to protect the rights, but to establish the rules under which copies or portions may be made to make a work more widely available. Copyright extends to electronic representations of these forms, too, although the laws governing new electronic copies in such forms as search engine indexes and browser caches needs better definition. The law was strengthened to include electronic reproduction issues in Fall 1998. In a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court in 2002, display of thumbnails by search engines were ruled as non-infringing copies of larger graphics.

Copyright exists on all original works from the moment they are published, whether formally registered or not and whether or not copyright markings appear on the works. The absence of a copyright marking does not mean it is in the public domain. Copyrights probably apply to public postings in e-mail, message bases, and newsgroups, but the law is not well tested in these areas. Copyrights are observed by most countries in the world.

  • Restrictions. When a work is copyrighted, unless you are the owner or have the
    specific permission of the owner, you cannot usually make a physical or electronic copy
    of a complete work. The courts approved making personal copies of video for delayed viewing, as long as you do not distribute it yourself. In the case of software, since you must copy it to your computer, and want to be able to back it up, license agreements usually accompany software that spell out what you can and cannot do.
    Making a few alterations or translating a work does not remove it from copyright. While ideas and facts cannot be copyrighted, the expression of those ideas and facts can be. (An idea may be patented, however.)
  • Ownership. Copyright may be owned by its creator(s) or by an organization and may be transferred to others. Generally, works created by employees of a company are owned by the company. Works for hire generally belong to the contracting company, but may depend on the provisions of the specific contracts involved. The owner of a copyright may give up the copyright and release the work to the public domain.
    There may be separate copyrights on a work of art and the performance of the work. For example, a basic copyright may exist on a song, and there also may exist many copyrights on recorded performances of the song. When a radio station plays a recording, you can be sure that they are paying licensing fees that cover both aspects of copyright. Licensing and copyright enforcement is vigorously being pursued on the web now, too. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1988 clarified the application of copyright restrictions to digital media, although many issues still remain to be settled by the courts or legislation. Witness the turmoil over MP3 files on the nets and companies like Napster, which provided them.
  • Duration. As copyright law has developed during this century, the duration of copyrights has been changed several times. Generally today, a work by a single author remains copyrighted until 70 years after the author’s death. Works with multiple authors, anonymous authors, or those owned by organizations last for 95 years, a recent change. There are exceptions. Once the applicable period has expired, the work reverts to the public domain.
  • Fair use. Fair use is often misunderstood, and sometimes claimed when there is no basis for it. There are certain specified fair use exceptions under which copies may be made of portions of a work. The least restrictive are for educational applications, but small portions of a work may be copied for the purposes of news reporting, criticism, and parody. Fair use generally does not depend on whether you make a profit from your copies. Making no profit from copying does not provide for fair use, but making a profit in competition with the copyright holder may prevent what would otherwise be fair use. For more information, see this article from FindLaw, The ‘Fair Use’ Rule: When Use of Copyrighted Material is Acceptable. Also, see Bound by Law. A comic book explaining copyright and fair use, from the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain. As technology changes, Fair Use has needed redefinition.
  • Implied consent. A very fuzzy area in the law is the area of implied consent. For example, do you have the right to quote another’s public message when you reply to it in the same public forum, or is that a copyright violation? You can probably do it safely, although it has not been tested in the courts. Do you have the right to quote a private communication from someone else (such as e-mail) in a public forum? Probably not, although it is frequently done.
    Licensing Copies.. Want to make a legitimate paper copy of a magazine article or a chapter of a book or post an article on the web? You can do it legally by purchasing the rights from the Copyright Clearance Center.
  • Plagiarism Plagiarism, sometimes confused with copyright violation, is presenting someone else’s work as your own. Such use may or may not also involve copyright violation. For example, to present a Shakespeare sonnet as your own writing is plagiarism, but it is not a copyright violation, since Shakespeare’s hundreds of years old works are not protected by copyright, unless there are modern additions such as scholarly commentary. Plagiarism is more an ethical issue than a legal one, unless fraud is involved. In an academic setting, of course, claiming someone else’s work as your own has serious consequences.

Copyright is not the only form of intellectual property protection. For example, while titles are not protected by copyright, they may be protected by trademarks. Ideas may not be protected by copyright, but they may be protected by patents.

Citing Sources of Copyrighted Material. Whenever you use information you have gained from other sources, particularly in academic or research settings or for formal publication, it is important to cite those sources to distinguish your own work from those of others, even if you are not directly copying anything. There are various accepted styles of citation. Pick the style your institution or publisher supports. Consistency in citations is most important. For more help with citations, visit The Chicago Manual of Style Quick Guide.


Protecting Yourself. As a webmaster or Forum host or author, there are some things you should do to protect yourself.

  • Author Protection. Any material you create and post is automatically copyrighted, but it is a good idea to include a copyright statement. It helps keep honest people honest.
  • Creative Commons. If you want to permit distribution of your work, but with limitations, consider a Creative Commons license. You can mark your work, as has been done with this page, with a license for copying under certain conditions, such as non-commercial use only.
  • Host Protection. If you host a web page or forum where others post, it is a good idea to warn people not to violate copyrights or plagiarize material. Post a warning that you will remove any such material that is called to your attention, and tell people how to notify you of violations. By posting this and following up promptly on violations formally called to your attention, you protect yourself against any liability for others actions under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

Further Information on Copyrights. Here are six links which give more information on copyright: