Disclaimer: Please remember, that, although this information is up-to-date and accurate, we are not attorneys, and this is not legal advice. If you have a question that requires legal advice, please consult your attorney.

In this section we’ll discuss Copyright law–what it is, what it applies to, how to obtain copyright for your original material, how to obtain a license for someone elses’ material, how you can you can use copywritten material without a license (Fair Use). We also provide a reference guide to current copyright law, and a list of links for more information on Copyrighting.

  • What Is Copyright? introduces the term and explains what’s covered by Copyright.
  • Copyrighting Your Work explains how to ensure work you’ve created is protected by Copyright law.
  • Licensing Material shows you where to go to get licenses so that you may use copywritten material.
  • Fair Use explains under what circumstances you can use copywritten material without permission.
  • Copyright Reference contains a reference table of current Copyright law, and provides links to places you can obtain more Copyright information.

What Is Copyright?

In this section you’ll learn what Copyright is all about and what type of material is covered under Copyright law.

Copyright Law
The Unites States Copyright Act, TITLE I7, SEC. 101, OCT. 19, 1976, 90 STAT, is a law enacted by congress in 1976 to protect original work. The Act protects creators, or owners of original work by preventing others to duplicate, distribute or alter their work. Only the person that holds the copyright may determine who can use their work.

What’s Covered?
All original work in tangible form is covered by the Copyright Act. Tangible form means something that you can touch, or something material. Material could be a book, or a piece of paper, or a Web site or a sculpture. But it can’t be your thoughts and ideas, no matter how great they may be.

In order to obtain Copyright for your material, the material must be original. Phone books, links, everyday symbols such as circles and squares are not copyrightable, because they lack originality. Facts are not original. However, the presentation of facts or links may be copywritten if they are presented in an original way. The Reference page on Copyright in this section contains links and facts about Copyright. The facts and links are not Copyrightable in and of themselves, but the way that they are presented is, because it’s original, thought-out and it took us some time to compile the links. Therefore, if you copy the table on our Reference page, you are violating our Copyright. Don’t worry, we’ll explain this as we go on.

Original work does not have to be novel or creative—it simple refers to someone’s original, tangible material. Copyright protects original material such as written content, original art, graphics, advertisers, architecture, sound, music, lyrics and recorded voice. It includes online material, such as material posted to the internet.

The copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce, modify, distribute, publicly display, and publicly perform the copyrighted work.

When someone who is not the owner of the Copyright uses copywritten material for his or her own purposes, without permission, they are guilty of Copyright infringement.

Under the law Copyright infringement is illegal. It can be both a civil and a criminal offense. (There is one exception, called Fair Use but we discuss this later).

How Long Is Material Covered by Copyright?
The Copyright Act protects:

  • Work created before 1978 for 75 years from the date of publication—providing that the Copyright is renewed.
  • Work created, but not published, before 1978 until December 31, 2002.
  • Works created from 1975 to the present for 50 years after the death of the author, if the author owns the Copyright; and for 75 years from the date of publication if an employer owns the Copyright.

For some reason, many people fail to see work on the Web as Copyrighted material. But most of the material on the Web is copywritten. That includes the words, the pictures, illustrations, graphics, banner ads, and sounds. While it is common for people to snag pictures, text and entire original HTML source code from a Web page (for example, a cross-platform compatible mouseover script for sound that you created); it’s illegal if it’s copywritten material. Assume that a Web page is copywritten unless you know for sure that it isn’t.

Copyrighting Your Work

This section discusses how to Copyright your works, either implicitly with the Berne Copyright Convention, or explicitly with a formal Copyright notice.

Berne Copyright Convention
Under a convention of the Law called the Berne Copyright Convention, all creative works are copywritten the moment they’re in a tangible form.

Tangible form means almost anything other than in your head. Simply dreaming of the world’s greatest Web site isn’t enough to protect your ideas by Copyright. But once it’s in a material form, it’s protected. This means that, regardless of whether or not you see a Copyright noticed affixed to a newspaper, Web page, piece of fine art—it’s most likely Copyright material, if it’s original.

However, many people have never heard of the Berne Copyright Convention. And many people, for some strange reason, fail to respect that most Web site material is Copyright protected, unless they see an explicit Copyright notice (and even then some people don’t care). It’s to your advantage to place a formal Copyright notice somewhere on your Web site—or on every page. You may not prevent people from stealing your work, but it may deter some people, it makes some people stop and think about whether they really want to “borrow” your material, and it can help you out in case you decide to press charges against someone for Copyright infringement.

Formal Copyright Display
There are three standard ways to display a Copyright notice:

  • Display a C with a circle around it:

Licensing Material

This section provides information on obtaining licenses for material on the Web, including sound, written content, video and graphics, so you can avoid Copyright infringement.

Sound is protected under the law in two ways. The composition of the sound, such as the lyrics and the musical instruments involved is protected by Title 17,the United States Copyright Act. But the actual recording of the sound is copywritten as well, in a different chapter under Title 17. The recording of sound provision exists because compositions may be performed by more than one performer—and each performance can sound completely unique, even though it’s the same original composition.

This dual protection for sound means its especially important for you to know where your sound is coming from, and whether or not it’s under a Copyright. Unless you create the sound yourself, hire someone to create the sound for you, or purchase a sound CD, you can assume it’s copywritten by someone. It’s up to you to contact that someone, and obtain permission from them before you use the sound yourself.

Written Content, Video and Graphics
Like sound; written content, video, and graphics are also protected under the Copyright Law. If it’s on the Web, it’s most likely copywritten. If you use someone elses’ artwork, videos or content on your Web site, you are most likely breaking the law.

Written words are illegal to copy, regardless of whether they’re printed in a novel, a newspaper, a brochure—or on a Web page. Instead of copying someone else’s words, link to their site, or ask the author for permission to quote excerpts from their content on your site. Always attribute the author of an excerpt—or even if you are using someone’s else’s content as a base for your content.

Under copyright law, it is illegal to reproduce a video unless you either own the copyright, or have obtained permission to reproduce it. Reproduction on the Web means showing that video. Before you use video on your Web site, make sure you have permission form all parties involved—that is, everyone in the video and the copyright holder of the video. If you’ve downloaded or purchased a video from a video distributor, make sure they’ve obtained model releases from every person in the video. Model releases are usually written contracts in which one person authorizes another to use their picture, or a video of them, for public display.

You should always obtain model releases for your own videos as well, even home videos, to protect yourself from someone demanding their image be taken off public display.

Images, such as pictures of graphics, can also present problems. Scanning photographs that you own doesn’t release you from all copyright issues either. Just because you scan it, doesn’t mean you own it, or can do anything you want with it. It’s best to have people in your photographs—whether they’re strangers or not—sign model releases, authorizing you to publish their picture over the Internet.

If you don’t own a picture or graphic, but would like to use it anyway, you must arrange an agreement with the creator of the work. Many people, instead of asking an artist if they could use an image, chose to simply link to the image instead.

Linking to someone else’s work, while presenting it as if it’s your own, isn’t a very good idea. Without warning, the owner or creator of the illustration or graphic could decide to remove it form their site, or alter it in some unpredictable way. You could be left with either a broken image, or an image you would never have linked to.

Under most circumstances, you can obtain a license to use copywritten material, or portions of material, simply by contacting the person who created the material. In the case of musicians and performers, you may need to contact the record label or record company. In the case of authors, you may need to contact the publisher, or a main editor. You can send the company or organization an email, explaining who you are, what material you’d like to use—and most importantly, why you want to use that material, and where you want to use it. Most likely you’ll be granted permission to use the material, unless the material is trademarked or is identified specifically with that company. The person, or company who owns the Copyright will most likely let you know whether it’s ok to use the material, under what circumstances you may use the material, where and how you use the material, and whether or not you may alter it.

If you fail to comply with these requests, you may be liable for Copyright infringement. Remember, they own the Copyright, you don’t.

Often, the Copyright holder will charge a small fee, or perhaps royalties when they grant permission to you to use the sound. Again, if you fail to comply with this request, and use the sound anyway, you could be held liable for Copyright infringement.

If you’re having a tough time contacting a specific company or artist, keep in mind that companies exist to do all the work for you. For a fee, these companies obtain the license for you to use the sounds you want to use. Below is a list of some companies on the Web that offer licensing services for sound, video and graphics, or can provide information on how to go about obtaining licenses:

  • The Parker Music Group helps you obtain copyright for music in all forms of media, including the Web.
  • The Harry Fox Agency is a division of the National Musician’s Publishers Association, and is a group that helps people obtain licenses for sound.
  • BMI is an organization that represents, and distributes royalties to songwriters, composers, and music publishers, for the public performance and digital use of their sound. BMI’s Web site also contains information about pending legislation regarding sound on the Web.
  • ASCAP which stands for The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, is another licensing organization. ASCAP’s site also provides resources and current legislative information about Copyright on their site.
  • Freecenter contains free graphics collections, available for download.

Fair Use

Under most conditions, you are not allowed to use Copyright Material without obtaining permission form the Copyright holder. But the Fair Use Provision allows you to use use Copyright Material in a few circumstances.

You can quote excerpts from a piece of original work in certain situations, including educational, research purposes and reviewing purposes.

When a movie or a book reviewer quotes material from the book or movie, they are not violating Copyright under the Fair Use Act. This is because the reviewer is using the material to exemplify the work. They are not reproducing the work in it’s entirety, or alluding that the work may be their own. This provision also protects educational institutions. The Fair Use Provision makes it possible for professors to quote excerpts form a book at the beginning of class, or for librarians to photocopy certain sections of material.

Even under the Fair Use provision, however, you should always attribute the creator of the work you are citing. You should also be sure that you are only using as little material as needed to illustrate your point.

Fair Use is often difficult to prove in a court of law. To be on the safe side, obtain a license, or permission before using Copyright material.

Note: “Fair use” is a U.S. legal principle that has no parallel in many other countries. So make sure to do your homework.
—Thanks to Lar Kaufman, Esq., of Concord, Massachusetts for pointing that out.

Copyright Reference

This section provides a quick reference guide to the length of Copyright, as well as links to sites with more information on Copyright law.

Length of Copyright
On October 27, 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act was enacted into Copyright Law. This Act extends the duration of copyright by adding 20 years to each of the previous copyright durations. In addition, any copyright still in its renewal term as of October 27, 1998 will have a copyright of 95 years from the date the copyright was secured.

The following table lists the new, updated length of copyright:

YearCopyright Law
Before 1978—PublishedWork is protected for 75 years from date of publication, providing copyright was renewed.
Pre 1978 (created but not published)The Copyright begins on January 1, 1978 and generally lasts for the life of last surviving author, plus 70 years.
1978 to Present—Copyright owned by an individualThe Copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the author
1978 to Present-Copyright owned by an employer of authorCopyright lasts for 95 years from the day of publication or 120 years from date of creation—whichever comes first.

Links to Sites with Copyright Information

  • The United States Copyright Office, at the library of congress, provides detailed information about Copyright law. You’ll find a new link to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DCMA) of 1998 here.
  • Thomas legislative information on the internet; a site that provides full text of United States legislation. You can search by concept, or by specific Bills. S. 2037 is the newest internet Copyright bill.
  • The Berne Copyright Convention , located at Cornell University’s United States Code Web site.
  • Title 17, the Copyright Act, located at Cornell University’s United States Code Web site.
  • Intellectual Property Law Web site.


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