04 Dec 2020

Copyright Infringement is Stealing

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Have you ever “borrowed” something from a web site which you did not have permission to use? Have you used a graphic by saving it your hard drive and including it as part of something you’ve created? If you’ve done these things, you’ve almost certainly violated copyright law. That’s called copyright infringement. If you’re like a lot of people, you justified it by telling yourself “Well, everyone does it”, “surely a little graphic won’t bother anyone” or “if it wasn’t supposed to be copied it would have been more secure.”

Copyright Infringement Examples

So what constitutes copyright infringement? Let’s look at some sites around the internet and see what’s been done. A quick look at a Star Trek fan site will get you dozens or even hundreds of copyright infringements right off the bat. This has gotten so bad that Viacom has sent letters to many sites demanding that they remove the materials or face legal action. Of course the site owners are up in arms about this … it’s “unfair” for a huge corporation to tell them they cannot break the law.

Your average Simpsons fan site has many copyright violations on every single page. And that Heather Locklear site that you liked so much with all of the scanned magazine covers … guilty of copyright infringement.

How many of us have picked up a few graphics or postings from newsgroups and added them to our website? That’s not copyright infringement, is it? Well, actually, it could be. I know it’s a common assumption that everything posted to a newsgroup is public domain … but guess what, just posting something does not mean it is now up for grabs.

How Does Copyright Work in the United States?

In fact, here’s how copyright in the United States works (I am not a lawyer, so if you have specific needs you should consult trained legal sources). You create something (written works, photography, art, crafts and anything like that) and as soon at that is created you have a copyright on that object, unless you have signed a contract or made an agreement that says otherwise. You don’t have to register that fact with anyone or any organization … you own the copyright from the moment that the work was created.

Under the copyright law, the creator of the original expression in a work is its author. The author is also the owner of copyright unless there is a written agreement by which the author assigns the copyright to another person or entity, such as a publisher. US Copyright Office

Registering helps prove that you are, indeed, the valid copyright owner. And placing the words “copyright (c)” on your works merely states something that already exists – you own the copyright. You don’t need to say that you do, but the words may be useful in pointing out to some people that the item is copyrighted. It won’t stop everyone (some will just crop out the words) but a few of the more honest people will respect the copyright notice.

But What if You Find it on the Internet?

Now, here’s another interesting point, just because someone “borrows” a work and say, posts it to a newsgroup, does not mean that the copyright is invalidated. In addition, if you write an article and post it in every newsgroup and message board on the planet, guess what, you still own the copyrights (unless the terms and conditions of where you posted it specifically say otherwise – always read terms and conditions before posting). YOU have the right to copy your creation as much as you want. You also have the right to give others the right to copy – as little or as much as you want. Creating copies does not cause you to lose the copyright.

What’s This Thing Called Fair Use?

Well then, how do the movie reviewers get away with making a quote from a film? Or what about a student who borrows a few lines from a reference book? Are they violating copyright?

Probably not. You see, there is an additional part of the copyright laws called “fair use”. What this means is anyone can make fair use of a copyrighted object. How is fair use defined? Very loosely, as it turns out.

What it means it that in order for a reviewer to do his job, he has to be able to quote a few lines from the work … that’s fair use. A student needs to be able to include a few things from research materials … that’s fair use. It might even mean that a review of a piece of art might include a postage-sized photograph of that art … again, probably fair use.

You can use small passages or excerpts according to fair use.

If the reviewer copied a page or two from the script, now that would most likely be considered a copyright violation. If a student simply copied vast portions of the encyclopedia into his paper … that would also be a copyright violation (as well as a failing grade if he gets caught). And the reproduction of the art might be considered copyright violation, depending upon how it was used, how large it was and what the motivation was in copying it in the first place.

So you see, creating a “Simpsons” site and using the word “doh” is fair use. However, including copies of the Simpsons cartoons on the site (without permission) … that’s copyright violation.

So is it okay to right click on a graphic on someone’s website and then include it on your own website? Most likely it is not … but it also depends on whether or not the graphic is public domain.

What Is Public Domain?

What’s public domain? These are creations for which the copyright has (a) been intentionally released to the public or (b) expired. Copyrights are only in force for a specific amount of time. Once that time has passed the copyright can be renewed. If it is not, it passes into public domain and is freely available for anyone to copy.

Nothing modern and creative is in the public domain anymore unless the owner explicitly puts it in the public domain. 10 Big Myths about copyright explained, Brad Templeton

The creator of a work also has the right to say, “anyone can copy this”. After all, he owns the copyright, so he has the right to say anyone or even everyone can copy it. He can also completely relinquish the right and put it into public domain … which means everyone (or no one depending on your viewpoint) owns the copyright.

He can also state, “you can copy this but you must include a link back to my site”. Again, he owns the copyright, so he can state under what conditions it can be copied. In fact, some sites say, “go ahead and make copies, but send a postcard if you do”. I’ve even run across a site which states, “it’s yours, but you have to care about something for fifteen minutes”. Legally that means if you use the graphic you must fulfill the “contract” and care for fifteen minutes … because that’s the terms of the agreement.

Okay, how do you know a creation is public domain? That’s the tricky part. You have to figure it out. Many old books are in the public domain … that’s how Project Gutenberg is able to offer ebooks for free. The books are old enough that their copyrights have expired.

That’s also why many public domain clip art collections seem to be Victorian or outdated. They are drawings and paintings from many years ago, and the copyrights have expired. Thus, someone simply gathered them up and packaged them as a clipart collection without needing to pay any royalties on any of the art.

What about those huge one million file clip art collections? Can you use them on your web site? Well, it depends upon the terms and conditions which are included with the clip art. Look on the CD or in the book that comes with the product. You should find a legal document spelling out how the material can be used. If you read it you will find your answer. In general, it seems most of these collections are fine to use if (a) you purchased the product, and (b) the usage is non-commercial. Please be sure you read the terms and conditions, though, to get the exact conditions of usage.

That’s all well and good, but you’ve just got a personal web site! Can’t you just scan a few pictures and post them? Copy a few graphics? Borrow some television scripts? Well, no, that’s copyright violation. Why? Because you are making a copy of the material without the permission of the owner of the copyright. Pure and simple. The fact that it’s a personal website is not relevant.

What’s the Right Way to include Materials Others Have Created?

Well, so you want to create a beautiful site and you want some cool graphics, sound files, videos and text. How do you get it without creating it all yourself?

That’s easy. First, you can use clip art, stock photos and other materials from clip art collections as long as you obey the terms and conditions of the product. It’s a good idea to read them before you purchase the package (you can usually find the terms on their web site or they will be happy to get you a copy if you give them a call).

Next, you can ask the copyright owner if it is okay that you make a copy. I do this often; quick email almost always results in permission! Usually all the copyright owner wants is a link back to his site and perhaps a brief note expressing gratitude.

If you want to use something you didn’t create, either buy it or ask permission.

And remember not to get angry if the person says “no”. He owns the copyright, after all, and has the right to say no. In fact, he may even have contracts with others that require him to refuse your request. You will often find this with cartoons from newspapers, for example. The newspaper is the only entity that has the right to copy by explicit agreement.

I like to include a page on my web site which explains, in detail, exactly what permissions I have obtained. I do this because (a) it removes all doubt in anyone’s mind, and (b) I will forget so it’s a good place to record the data.


All right, all right, all right. This all sounds well and good, but hey, who cares if you steal some stupid pictures anyway? Who does it hurt, after all, to scan that photo of Heather Lockleer and post it on your site?

To put it simply, it hurts everyone. It hurts the person who took the picture, because he is not getting compensated for the use of his work, nor was he given the opportunity to grant permission to use his property. It hurts society because it is a crime. It hurts you, the thief, because it is unethical. And you know the old saying … “What goes around comes around”. And yes, in a manner of speaking, copyright infringement is theft – you are taking something that does not belong to you.

References for Copyright Law

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Kathleen L.

Great article! These are mind blowing facts. Planning to start a blogging website soon and this should be keep in mind. Thanks for the advise.

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