Article: June Campbell


The Small Business Library

May 26, 2000

Hey, Isn't that My Article You're Using?
[ Or Copyright Violations 101 ]

The Internet makes is so easy to get great content for your web site and newsletter, right? Everywhere you turn, you find pictures, animations, music, articles, columns, and jokes -- all free for the taking.

Or are they?

In the countries subscribing to the Berne Copyright Convention, copyright law protects the items mentioned above. Copyright exists from the moment an idea is put in fixed form. If you discuss your concept with someone who then proceeds to write it, draw it, paint it or make a song about it, no copyright violation has occurred. However, once you have written, recorded, drawn, painted or otherwise put your concept into fixed form, it is protected by copyright convention.

In the case of copyright disputes, courts typically award copyright to the person who can defend his or her ownership. Therefore, it is advisable to register your important creations with the appropriate body in your country.
Registering does not make your copyright protection any more "legal", but it makes it easier to prove that the property is yours in the event of dispute.

Copyright belongs to the creator until 50 years after that person's death. However, the creator can opt to put the work in the public domain (meaning anyone is free to use it), or can opt to sell, license or give any and all rights to another party. Therefore, without express permission of the copyright holder, you are not entitled to publish his or her intellectual creation. (There is one exception: the Fair Use Provision. You can use snips of works without permission if you are writing a review, news report or critique.)

So, what does this mean to those of us who publish web sites or email newsletters?

Consider:

  • Comments and articles posted to mailing lists, message boards and Usenet groups are not public domain; the copyright belongs to the poster.

  • Images scanned from magazines, books or newspapers are copyright violations unless you have received permission from the copyright holder.

  • Images, clip art or cartoons are protected by copyright unless otherwise stated. In some cases, copyright holders make their properties available for your use under certain conditions. For example, a clip art collection could be licensed for use on personal web sites but not corporate web sites.

  • Jokes circulating the Internet could belong to someone.

Writers (like myself) who distribute free articles to Web publishers are usually "licensing" you to use the article provided you include their byline or advertisement at the bottom. Omit the byline and you are in violation.

You are responsible to ensure that the person who provided you with the property had the right to do so. There have been incidents of web publishers purchasing collections of articles suitable for e-publishing. If you purchase a collection of articles suitable for e-publishing, are you certain that the seller holds the copyright on each article in the set?

So, how much trouble might you get into if you violate copyright?

In the US, copyright is a matter of civil law, so you could be sued. The courts will award based on which side the judge or jury decides has the strongest case. Moreover, under recent US, law, commercial copyright violation in excess of 10 copies or $2500 is a felony.

If someone notifies you that you are in breach of copyright violation, the best course of action is to remove the material in question while you investigate. Courts tend to view it in a positive light when you remove questionable items promptly.

Article by June Campbell
June is a professional writer whose work has appeared in several international print and online publications. As the owner of her own business, Nightcats Multimedia Productions, she provides business writing services and online sales of business templates and guides from her web site. Her web site offers a number of resources to small businesses - including guides for proposal writing, business plan development and more.
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