Web Site Owners: Ignore Copyright Issues At Your Peril

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Web Site Owners And Copyright Issues Computer Law Intellectual Property

Web Site Owners: Ignore Copyright Issues At Your Peril

When you have used somebody else’s words on your Web site or have copied someone else’s images without getting permission to do so, there’s always the danger that you have infringed the copyright protection laws. You must be very careful to ensure that the person whose material you are using knows that you have posted it and that you obtain explicit permissions from them when necessary. Even if you think nobody will ever look at your Web site, once it is live, anyone can go there-including those whose work you may be showing. Failing to understand the basics of posting content online could put you on the wrong side of a copyright infringement lawsuit, which is not where anyone wants to be.
What is copyright law?
Copyright law protects the rights of authors of “original” works, both published and unpublished. It safeguards the “form of expression” rather than the subject matter and includes books, music, artistic endeavors and other intellectual works within its gambit. The law does not stop you from describing the content of other works, so long as you do so in your own words.
Documents, Images, and Photographs
Documents on the World Wide Web are copyrighted material in just the same way as they are in magazines, newspapers and other print publications. It may be perfectly appropriate to quote a few lines from another publication so long as you give the source. On the other hand, to take large chunks of text from another author’s book is not so acceptable. The safest way to ensure you are not infringing copyright is to ask the original author’s permission to reproduce the work before you do anything.
Web designers will sometimes “steal” an image from another Web site believing the way they’ve revised it is different enough to make the source unrecognizable. But no matter how you slice it, this image is now a “derivative work” and using it will expose you and your business to liability issues. The bottom line is you cannot use someone else’s protected image as a base for your own without first obtaining their permission.
If you are found out and the image has been registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, you would be liable for at least a minimum amount of statutory damages, which could be substantial depending on how you used the material. If the image was not registered, you would be liable for actual damages which will probably be nominal, although you could still end up having to pay attorney fees if you are forced to defend the case.
There are multiple photo bank sites that license photos. Some Internet sites provide free use of images when you agree to give credit to the author and/or a link back to his or her Web site. Even with those sites, however, you run the risk that the images were used without the owner’s permission. The fact that people publicly post photos on these sites for others to see does not put those images in the public domain. Using photos from popular sites like Flickr.com or Multiply.com without permission can also lead to liability.
Fair Use Doctrine
Fair use allows the reproduction of a limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders. There are specific factors, however, to consider when determining if fair use applies, and in most cases it does not. Moreover, the exact rules for fair use are vague. For example, when you put copyrighted material on your site you can be sued for damages for either personal or commercial use. The fact that your Web site is not commercial will likely reduce the damages awarded against you under the fair law doctrine, but it will not necessarily absolve you of the violation.
Trademark versus Copyright Law
Some people also confuse trademark and copyright law. Although part of the onus lies with the trademark owner to protect or “police” the use of his or her company logo, for example, there is no similar “you snooze, you lose” policy regarding copyright protection. Even if the copyright holder knows you are using the protected work, he or she can come after you years later, unless you have already obtained permission to use the material.
Three Issues At Play
First, the person whose site the image or content is on may not be the copyright holder or have permission to use the material. Except for specific exceptions, the person that created the image or content owns the copyright. If the owner of the Web site does not own the rights, you should find out who does and get their permission in writing.
Second, just because the Web site owner has permission to use the material doesn’t mean that he or she can grant you permission. You should always get your own written permission from the copyright owner.
Third, other intellectual property issues may arise, for instance, the subject of the image or the document, (if a person) may object to your use of it without a release, or the image may include other protected content, such as a painting.
Basically, you should follow the same rules on the Web as if you were going to publish the material in a printed publication. Just because something is online, doesn’t mean it is automatically in the public domain. Yes, you can read Web content to your heart’s delight and you can even Xerox other people’s images and photographs for your own personal use, but once you start thinking about including any of it on your own site, you’d be wise to seek permission (in writing) from the copyright owner.

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