Copyrights on the Web

by Steve Gage

Many technical communicators turn to the Internet to publish technical information. Wide use of web publishing, a fairly new practice, attracts many people. However, both novice and experienced users appear to take the convenience of web publishing for granted. In direct response to the ease of publishing information on the Internet, questions about web copyright laws have started to surface and multiply in the field of technical communication.

Under US copyright law, "any original work fixed in a tangible medium is automatically protected by copyright regardless of whether any copyright formalities are done." The absence of a copyright notice does not grant automatic permission for use. Copyright permission exists through implication. People often overlook the need to apply for permission to use information and images found on the Internet, due to the ease of copying facts and available data.

The ease of pirating information did not begin with the Internet. Tape recorders used for copying audio clips, videocassette recorders used for copying movies, and recordable compact discs used for copying computer software contribute to infringement of copyright laws. Copyrights for these materials are rigidly enforced. Legal battles with Internet sites, like Napster, result from interpretations of these copyright laws. When considering all the information that is posted on the Internet, the size of the problem magnifies and leaves little wonder why so much hype surrounds this problem.

Technical communicators keep from infringing on copyright laws by always asking for permission from the owner to use posted material. However, obtaining permission to use something on the web becomes just that: a web. For example, if technical communicators get permission from a webmaster to copy something from his/her site, the technical communicators know better than to post the information or graphics indiscriminately to their sites without fear of liability. Unless the work being copied belongs exclusively to the webmaster, an entire web of people may need to be contacted in order to secure the necessary permissions. Technical communicators must discover who really owns the work they wish to copy.

United States copyright laws do permit some copying without permission from the copyright owner. You may use material without permission "so long as the copying falls within fair use."

Fair use opens the door to tricky interpretation. Copying small portions of information may fall into fair use more likely than copying larger portions of information. The intended use of copied material also merits consideration when determining fair play. An Internet site,, suggests using links to other sites instead of copying the information. That protects the user from copyright infringement.

Copying images from other web sites may cause difficulties, though. One option people choose, in order to avoid this, uses a new feature called IMG (Image) hypertext reference. This feature replaces a copied image with a URL (Uniform Resource Locator). If you visit a page which uses an IMG reference, your browser obtains

the image from that site and shows the image on your web page. This does not slow the link with the IMG reference, but it does slow the link of the other web site. This may disadvantage your web site. Be sure the slow- down does not affect the use of your site.

Several reasons exist for not using IMG references. Primarily, if the site you reference edits or deletes its image, you may have a hole in your page, and presentation of your sight would suffer. Since copyright laws pertaining to IMG referencing remain unresolved in the courts, the Oppedahl & Larson Patent Law home page suggests that "the safest course of action is to avoid the use of IMG references except in the special case where permission has been obtained from the owner of the site having the image file."

Copyright laws pertaining to the Internet continue to evolve. Time may solidify copyright guidelines, making adherence to the law easier to follow. However, enforcement of those laws on the Internet may prove more challenging than viable in most cases.

The moral and legal course of action implies obtaining reliable permission for information or images copied from any source on the Internet.

Several other Internet copyright issues deserve attention. For additional information, visit

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