- Please remember to consult an attorney. This should not be considered legal advice.
When people talk about how the Internet revolutionized various industries, they are not usually talking about publishing. Publishing is an industry that, every couple of hundreds years, seems to go through sudden seismic changes, rather than steady innovation like many other industries. The advent of the Internet has been another massive change in the publishing industry.
The Internet supplies virtually every user with the ability to publish writings, music, videos, and pictures to websites, blogs, and social networking platforms. Between all the commenting, liking, sharing, and emailing—it’s easy to forget that there is still such a thing as ownership, property rights, and intellectual property, even in the virtual world. It is incredibly important to remember that just because you are posting or reading online, that does not mean that copyright laws cease to apply. Understanding how copyright laws function online is a good thing.
Copyrighted work is any work which is fixed and finished. Individuals often assume copyrights must be filed or notarized—this is not the case. Anytime a piece of written work, video, or song is considered “finished” or “fixed”, it is automatically copyrighted. The reason individuals seek notarizations or time stamps on their work is because they want to be able to prove when their work was fixed or finished. The U.S. Copyright Office defines it pretty clearly—copyrightable creations are “original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form of expression”. What this means is that whenever Jim Bob publishes his video online, it’s automatically copyright protected and when Anna Marie posts her book online, it, too, is automatically covered by copyright laws.
How can copyrights be violated online? In hundreds of ways, actually. People do it every single day without even really understanding what they have done. This is especially common for younger people, who have grown up in an age of the Internet, when copyrights and intellectual property were less confining, thanks to the Internet.
These days, it’s common to create a Youtube video with background music while their pictures scroll through. This is a widely accepted practice, but it still violates copyright laws. If one were to try to sell such a video, using background music that was not licensed to them or in the public domain, then they would likely encounter a cease and desist order and perhaps a lawsuit.
What is “the public domain”? This is any piece of material, written, filmed, or heard, which is no longer covered by a copyright. This applies to many songs, movies, and pieces of writing that are older, as well as many new pieces of work which the authors have released to the public domain. Material which is in the public domain is available for borrowing for use in other projects. This means one could make a movie featuring clips or songs which are now in the public domain. If these clips or songs are not in the public domain, you must pay for, or receive, permission to use the material in question. This is how so many rappers and singers can create remixes and cover-songs of older recordings.
Fair Use is a term in copyright law which many people hear, but few understand. Internet savvy individuals should have some understanding of Fair Use, so that they will know what is acceptable to use, and what isn’t. “Fair Use” is a doctrine of United States Copyright Code, found in Title 17, sections 107 through 118. Unfortunately, the distinction between fair use and infringement of copyright law is a grey area in many circumstances. It’s best to do everything one can to try to obtain permission, rather than assuming that acknowledging the source is good enough.
The Copyright Office cannot give an individual permission to use any materials. This permission can only come from those individuals who actually created the material and own the copyright for those writings, videos, songs, etc. If obtaining permission to use copyrighted material is impractical or impossible—do not use it. This applies to both offline or online materials. There are a lot of limitations on the amount of material one can use online when it is copyrighted. The Copyright Code in the United States outlines the limitations in Title 17, Section 512.
Title 17, Section 512 was added to he United States Code by the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act (OCILLA). This piece of legislation was passed in 1998 as part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. OCILLA was introduced as legislation in the House of Representatives on July 29th, 1997 by Representative Howard Coble, a Republican from North Carolina. It was passed on August 4th, 1998, by a simple voice vote. The United States Senate passed the legislation by unanimous consent later that year. President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law on October 28th, 1998. This is sometimes called the “Safe Harbor” clause because it protects online service providers and other third party providers of information from legal liabilities, providing special exemptions from copyright laws. The Safe Harbor Clause was an attempt to bring some balance to the copyright laws of the United States by simply setting some simple rules and requirements in place.
Under OCILLA, many online service providers have to have an internal system for responding to take-down notices and removing infringing materials. Certain groups allege that this leads to over-policing and unfair removal because the take-down notices are not properly investigated.
Many individuals are under the impression that online piracy or copyright infringement will only result in cease and desist orders or modest fines. This is simply not true and it’s a dangerous myth. The No Electronic Theft Act, passed in 1997, is a law which amended Titles 17 and 18 of the United States Code. It provided for criminal prosecution of individuals who engaged in considerable copyright infringement offenses. Maximum penalties are five years in prison and up to $250,000 in monetary fines. So be very careful when publishing materials online, there are penalties and there are rules and laws, regardless of what the public perception is.
U.S. Copyright Office – The official source for U.S. copyright information and records.
Library of Congress – Offers extensive resources and research guides on U.S. copyright law.
Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute – Provides a comprehensive overview of copyright law and its applications.
American Bar Association – Publishes resources and articles on various aspects of copyright law in the U.S.
Stanford University Copyright and Fair Use Center – Features a robust collection of copyright resources, including guides and legal cases.