Online copyright law is a complicated matter, the details of which are often unknown, misunderstood or misinterpreted. It is therefore not uncommon for internet users to break internet copyright laws unintentionally which can be frustrating for the owner of the original content and can give the perpetrator a nasty surprise when they are threatened with the removal of their site.
The creator of an original work is granted exclusive rights to it under copyright law. This means that no one else can print, publish, perform or reproduce the material in any way without permission. There are many misconceptions regarding what is and isn’t copyrighted online so it’s important to make sure you know exactly whether or not something is protected. Firstly, any original content written for the web is copyrighted as soon as it is created; the originator does not have to apply for copyright, they are automatically protected. Secondly, an author does not have to label their work with a copyright notice for it to be copyrighted. Therefore, to be as safe as possible, it is best to assume that any content or pictures you find are copyrighted and may not be copied without permission.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)
Copyleft and Creative Licensing – When copy is available to copy
Copyleft refers to work that has been copyrighted by the author but which includes a license stating that other people do have the right to use, modify, publish and share the work. However, the modified versions must be bound under the same license so that anyone else who receives a copy of the work, modified or original, will also have the same rights. It is therefore still possible that someone could infringe the copyright by not adhering to the terms as presented by the copyright holder.
A Creative Commons License is used by authors who want to allow other people the right to share, use or modify a work they have created. The appeal of using such a license is that the author can choose exactly who it refers to, for example an author might only allow the use of their work in non-commercial instances. As with copyleft, those who use the material must abide by the specified conditions.
Exemptions – When you can copy copyrighted work
There are some very specific situations in which copyrighted work can be used outside of the DMCA provisions or rather, where ‘fair use’ applies. In America, there is a much more relaxed approach to the use of copyrighted work for specific purposes such as for educational use for example. In the UK, the exemptions are rather more limited and are restricted to use of a work for criticism, review, parody or quotation in a limited form. However, even if you think you are excluded from liability because the way in which you intend to use the work is considered an exemption, it is always worth referring to the act directly to make sure.
Lastly, it is also important to know that copyright in the UK lasts for 70 years after the author’s death; so even if it seems like old material and you think you are safe – always check!