Copyright on the Internet

Being on the web doesn't make it public domain

Copyright on the web seems to be a difficult concept for some people to understand. But it's really simple: If you did not write or create the article, graphic, or data that you found, then you need permission from the owner before you can copy it. Remember, when you use someone's graphic, HTML, or text without permission, you are stealing, and they can take action against you.

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is the right of the owner to reproduce or permit someone else to reproduce copyrighted works.

Keyboard with a key labeled Copyright.
Peter Dazeley / Getty Images 

Copyrightable works include:

  • Literary works such as articles, stories, journals, or computer programs
  • Pictures and graphics
  • Blueprints of architecture
  • Music and song lyrics
  • Plays and screenplays
  • Audiovisual recordings such as movies
  • Sound recordings

If you're not sure if an item is copyrighted, it probably is.

Reproduction can include:

  • Printing a web page
  • Copying the HTML, JavaScript or other code of a page
  • Downloading an image to your hard drive
  • Printing an image

Most copyright owners on the web will not object to the personal use of their web pages. For example, if you found a web page that you wanted to print, most developers would not find it a violation of their copyright if you were to print out the page.

Copyright Notice

Even if a document or image on the web does not have a copyright notice, it is still protected by copyright laws. If you are trying to protect your own work, it is always a good idea to have a copyright notice on your page. For images, you can add watermarks and other copyright information into the image itself using special software, and you should also include your copyright in the alt text.

When Is Copying Something an Infringement?

The most common types of copyright infringement on the web are images being used on websites other than the owners. It doesn't matter if you copy the image to your web server or point to it on their web server. If you use an image on your website that you didn't create, you must get permission from the owner. It is also common for the text, HTML, and script elements of a page to be taken and reused. If you have not gotten permission, you have violated the owner's copyright.

Many companies take this type of infringement very seriously. About, for instance, has a legal team that handles copyright infringement, and the Fox TV network is very diligent in searching out fan sites that use their images and music and will demand that the copyrighted material be removed.

But How Will They Know?

Before we answer that, keep in mind this quote: “Integrity is doing the right thing even if no one will know.”

Many corporations have programs called "spiders" that will search out images and text on web pages. If it matches the criteria (same file name, content matches, and other things), they will flag that site for review and it will be reviewed for copyright infringement. These spiders are always surfing the net, and new companies are using them all the time.

For smaller businesses, the most common way to find copyright infringement is by accident or being told about the infringement. For example, editors for this website have to search the web for new articles and information about our topics. Many editors have done searches and come up with sites that are exact duplicates of their own, right down to the content they wrote. Other editors have received an email from people either reporting a possible infringement or just announcing the site that turns out to have stolen content.

But recently more and more businesses are springing up around the issue of copyright infringement on the web. Companies like Copyscape and FairShare will help you track your web pages and scan for infringements. Plus, you can set up Google alerts to send you an email when a word or phrase you use a lot is found by Google. These tools make it much easier for small businesses to find and confront plagiarists.

Fair Use

Many people talk about fair use as if that makes it okay to copy someone else's work. However, if someone takes you to court over a copyright issue, you have to admit to the infringement, and then claim it is “fair use.” The judge then makes a decision based upon the arguments. In other words, the first thing you do when you claim fair use is admitted that you stole the content.

If you are doing a parody, commentary, or educational information you may be able to claim fair use. However, fair use is nearly always a short excerpt from an article and it is usually attributed to the source. Also, if your use of the excerpt harms the commercial value of the work (along the lines of if they read your article they won't need to read the original), then your claim of fair use may be nullified. In this sense, if you copy an image to your website this cannot be fair use, as there is no reason for your viewers to go to the owner's site to see the image.

When using someone else's graphics or text on your web page, we would recommend getting permission. If you are sued for copyright violation, to claim fair use you must admit to the infringement, and then hope that the judge or jury agrees with your arguments. It's faster and safer to just ask permission. And if you're really only using a small portion, most people will be happy to grant you permission.


The author of this article is not a lawyer. The content of this article is for information purposes only and is not meant as legal advice. If you have specific legal questions about copyright issues on the web, you should talk to a lawyer that specializes in this area.