Copyright Questions and Answers

By Joe Burns

     The following are a series of questions that have been asked of me at one time or another through email. People are concerned about what they can and cannot do in terms of copyright. I knew some of the answers and others I did not. After contacting a copyright expert at a local university, I was able to put together the answers to some of these common questions.

     Please note... Copyright law and copyright applications change. What is true in some cases may not be true in others. Below are a series of guidelines with, to the best of my knowledge, correct answers. If I am incorrect or misleading in some areas, please let me know or offer help.


What is a copyright, anyway?
     It is a form of intellectual property law. It protects an author or creator from his or her stuff being pirated and used without permission.
     Keep in mind though it does not protect the idea, system or method of the information. For instance - I have a copyright on HTML Goodies. That copyright covers my writings. It does not cover the idea of teaching HTML on the net, the fact that I used English to do it, or that hypertext is employed. There are obviously other places on the net trying to teach you how this stuff is done.

The Internet is public domain, so isn't everything fair game?
     No. The copyright laws that apply to written material, photographs, and a myriad of other items apply on the Internet too. You cannot just take and use what ever you feel like.
     For some interesting reading on the subject, try Yong-Cham Kim's Copyright and Internet. It discusses the Clinton administration's attempt to shape existing copyright laws to apply more fully to the digital age. Clinton's commission, The Information Infrastructure Task Force (IITF), made some suggestions in their "White Paper" that have some people upset. Read all about it. I found it interesting.

So, is making a link to another copyrighted page against the law?
     For the most part, no. You are only making a link to the page rather than displaying the information. That doesn't create a violation per se. However, since owners of copyright also own the rights to what can be done with their items, they do have the ability to deny you permission to create a link. Please understand, denying someone a link happens in very rare cases, but it has happened.
     I wouldn't be overly concerned about putting up a link to another page. I think you'll find that 99% of the pages on the net would be happy with a link. You can link to the HTML Goodies page all day long if you wish. I'd love the extra traffic. But keep in mind that the page that you link to has the right to demand that you take the link down. I know this all sounds loopy, but that's the scoop.

What do I put on the page?
     You should place the circle C (©) and the word "copyright" plus the year and the name of the author. Like so:

This page © Copyright 1997, Dr. Joe Burns, Ph.D.

     You may think you only need the circle c or the word copyright alone. But remember that the circle c is created in HTML through this command: ©. That will not show as a circle c when the source code is printed. Put them both to be safe.
     Make a point of placing it on at least the main page. That's what I did. I made a blanket statement that everything inside "htmlgoodies.com" was written by me, except where noted. Whether you do put the copyright on every page, or just the top level page, make a point of putting the copyright in the text so it shows when the page is displayed, and also put it in the HTML code. Like so:

<!-- This page Copyright 1997, Dr. Joe Burns, Ph.D. -->

Wait, don't I have to send a form to the government too?
     That is voluntary. The Copyright Office will catalogue your site if you want them to. It'll cost 20 bucks plus some shipping. No, this is not required in order to be able to bring a civil suit against someone else for copyright infringement. You may go after damages to recover losses. However, you may only attempt to get punitive damages (punishment money) if you are registered with the Copyright Office.

How do I register with the Copyright Office?
     You will need to fill out the application form TX. There are other forms, but this is the one a web site would use. The form is available from the Copyright Office Home Page. Fill it out, print a copy of your web site and send it in with a $30 check. The address is Register of Copyrights, Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington D.C., 20559-6000. You should receive confirmation in about 5 to 6 months. Please note that the Copyright Office does not want two separate sheets of paper for the TX form. If you get the form from their site, it will print as two sheets. You'll need to photocopy them so they make one sheet, front and back.

Can I just send in a disc?
     No. A CD-ROM, yes. A floppy disc - no.

Do I have to register all my pages alone?
     You mean like $20 a page? No. I registered Goodies in one fell swoop. Updates go later. I looked upon it as chapters in a book.

How long will my copyright last?
     Until you've been dead 50 years. Don't sweat it.

I'm just a kid. Can I get a copyright?
     Yes. Minors are allowed copyright protection. Follow the same procedure as above.

But the Internet is global. What about someone in another country using my stuff?
     That depends on the country's policies. Some countries recognize a U.S. copyright and help with violators. Some don't. I haven't a list of what countries do and don't. I didn't find one either.

I call my site "Dog Breath". Can I copyright that?
     No. Titles, names, and logos are not protected under copyright. You'll need to get into trademarks for that. Even then, you cannot trademark a word, just the design of the logo and the fact that the words represent your company. If you could copyright a word, I'd do the word "the." I'd be rich quickly.

This one site has a great image, but it's copyrighted. Can I use it?
     Not without written permission. Period. I can't be more clear on that.

Can I use anything from a site?
     According to the Fair Use Doctrine (Section 110 (5) of the Copyright Act of 1976), it is allowable to use "limited portions" of a copyrighted item for works such as commentary, news reporting, academic reports, and the like. But you still have to give credit. You cannot claim the work as yours. You must cite where it came from.
     The tricky part is that there is no set number of words that equal "limited portions." It's a tough call. My suggestion is to be fair to the person with the copyright Don't post the whole site and give credit on only one page. I would fight someone posting a healthy portion of Goodies and only citing once. I also believe, on the net, the cite should include a hypertext link. (That's not law, I just believe that).

Cool, I'll just post everything and cite to my heart's content, right?
     Wrong. There are limitations on Fair Use (17 USCS Sect. 107). Several factors will be taken into account, if you are attempting to make a profit, the nature of the work, the size of the portion you use, and the effect on the market place.
     For example, you repost a large section of the HTML Goodies site and write around it some of your own stuff. You then register it with search engines calling people to come. Even though you cite me all day long, I would still have a hairy. You are putting a dent in my visitors and trying to use my work to bring people to you. Even if you quote a small amount of my work to gain visitors, I would still get upset. You are using my words to bring people to your site.
     Now, before you ask, I am talking about direct quotes and the use of my language (tutorials, primers, etc.). If you read the tutorials and use the information to create your own page - great! That's the purpose of this site. Here, I am talking about a direct theft of my site. Feel free to use my ideas to death. Just don't use my exact words to attempt to get more people to your site.

What if I take the person's page and change it a little. Can I copyright it?
     No. The changes must be "substantial and creative." In effect, there may be very, very little lingering remnants of the original work. You might as well write it from scratch before trying to steal and alter. Editorial changes will just not cut it in a court of law. And speaking of the law...

What can you do if someone uses your copyrighted stuff without getting permission?
     You can file a civil lawsuit in federal court to get an order stopping the person from using your material. A copyright attorney can get you started in the process. If the person has used your work and is attempting to make a profit with it, then the U.S. Attorney can get involved.

What do you do when someone posts part of HTML Goodies without permission?
     Usually I write a calm email letter asking the person to stop and take the pages down. If they have registered the pages with search engines then I ask them to place a re-direct on the page so that hits come to the right place.
     If that doesn't work, I contact the webmaster of the server and tell them to shut down the user's site, the entire site, or civil action will be brought against the server people for allowing copyrighted material to be pirated on their site. The next step would actually be to file a suit.

Has this ever happened?
     A few times. I've only had to go to the server people once. When I did, the site was off-line in a matter of hours. I've never filed a lawsuit.

Would you?
     Yes.

What if I use something that I didn't know was copyrighted?
     When you are asked to take it down, take it down. No one wants a lawsuit. They cost money. Usually you are asked to stop first. Just apologize and stop.

What if I am using something that is copyrighted and I know it?
     Then you know you're breaking the law. The same answer applies from above, but don't be upset if you get served. You knew you were doing wrong to begin with.

I'm just a kid. I don't have anything to take. Go ahead! Sue me! You can't do anything to me! Nyah!!!
     You're right in one aspect. Because you are young, there is very little someone could, or would want to, take from you. What can be done is a conviction of a federal crime.
     Have you ever gone into fill out a job application? Remember that line that asked if you had ever been convicted of a federal crime? You'll be checking YES for the remainder of your life. Try and get a job even related to computers with a conviction for copyright infringement. No way.

What if I don't take the image, but rather just make a link to the real site so the image shows up on my page, but is coming from the actual copyrighted site?
     No go. You are still displaying it, and you are breaking the law.

I want to have music or video from my favorite music group on my site. Can I?
     The answer is maybe. ASCAP and BMI are the two big music licensing firms. They sell what are known as "blanket fee" licenses to servers now. That fee allows the server to reproduce any song under BMI or ASCAP representation. If your server has paid the fee, go for it.
     Without that fee being paid, you are breaking the law by playing the song.

But I'll only play a portion like in the "Fair Use" deal.
     You're walking a thin line there. The purpose is entertainment in this case and might be a problem.

Fine, I'll just play my version of the song on my keyboard and post that.
     That's being done a lot and I didn't find much on it. I really don't have an answer other than if you are using it to make a profit, then you may run into troubles.

Fine again, I'll play a recording of an old Bach piece. He's been dead for 50 years. The song's out of copyright and in the public domain.
     Not always so. Authors can claim copyright on the sheet music, arrangement, and even performance of the song. Whereas you may not be upsetting Bach, you may be upsetting the person who arranged it.
     Same deal with old pictures and paintings. Just because the artist has been dead and gone since the age of no indoor plumbing doesn't mean that a museum or a collector doesn't own the rights.

Well, what is in public domain?
     As far as I could find, there is no government list or any other kind of list for that matter. You have to be careful about playing and posting.

What if I scan something that's copyrighted? Isn't the picture mine?
     No. That would mean you are trying to copyright the method. That's not allowed.

How can I be sure nothing on my site is copyrighted?
     Make it all yourself. Or ask permission at all costs. There are some sites out there that will check for you, (link below) but I think doing it all yourself is much safer and more gratifying.
     If you want to post something that is not yours, get permission from the owner. If the owner says no - too bad. If the owner says yes - get it in writing and hold onto it. You may also want to build good relations with people by giving them credit on the page in addition to asking permission.

Do you do that?
     Completely. Every time something appears on HTML Goodies that was not written by me, I make a point of giving credit. If someone sends me a letter and I think it's post-able, I ask if I can. Some people do not want any other names on their sites other than their own. I don't buy that. I cannot possibly know everything. When others help, I am happy and put a link. It is an equal relationship. The only thing I frown upon is someone else writing a tutorial. I like to do that.
     I will only accept JavaScripts from their authors. Now, it's rather easy to fool me and a couple have. They took another's work and put their name to it. I was then contacted by the real author and told to take it down. I did.
     Another time, an author had placed his copyright on the HTML page but had not placed it in the code. By posting the code without the copyright, I was breaking the law. It was brought to my attention rather sternly. I apologized for what was truly an innocent mistake and took the page down.
     Those are the only two times I ran into trouble. I try to be very careful.

Final Thoughts

     No, the Internet is not wide open. The laws still apply here. Just because you can take it does not mean you should. Give credit as you would want credit given to you. That image may be really cool. Re-posting my site and claiming it as your own may impress your friends and a couple of visitors. Playing your favorite band's music may show you're a great fan.

     ...but none of it is worth a lawsuit.


Here are a few Great links with much more detailed info:



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