Website copyright in a nutshell

Copyright is simply the protection given to an author to allow them to enjoy the fruits of their labours. It is generated automatically and freely whenever anyone creates an original expression of an idea (be it a web page design, a sound clip, a paragraph in an article, etc).

For anyone creating/administering a website, copyright therefore impacts you in two ways:

  • copyright in your original content (eg protecting your site from others).
  • copyright in non-original content that you are using, and honouring that copyright (eg protecting your site from yourselves)

protecting your site from others

For your site, copyright in its content exists automatically once the content has been created. That copyright continues, also automatically, until a significant period after the author’s death (in Australia its 50 years; other countries 50 or 70 years). You do not need to apply for copyright
or register in any way.

Not all your content is/can be copyrighted. For example facts can not be copyrighted (you cannot sue someone else for repeating your statement that England won the 1966 World Cup). Also non-copyrighted are names, short phrases, or ideas. For example, if you have a great idea for a killer website, and mention that idea on your site, you have no recourse on anyone who actually builds that site. Your idea is not protected, only its expression. Hence to protect it, build it.

To © or not to ©

If you look at most websites, you will find a copyright notice (with the special © character – added as ©). This is actually unnecessary as all countries that are signatories to the Bern Convention (which includes all those you’ve actually a legal chance of having your copyright honoured in) agree to respect your copyright without the symbol/notice.

However adding the notice is recommended, not for legal purposes, but for a prompt to your users that you are serious about protecting your interests. Place it clearly on your home page and all other pages that might attract copying. If you have some content you are happy to be copied under certain conditions, link your copyright prompt to a statement of those terms and conditions.

preventing copying

Obviously copyright does not stop the unscrupulous from copying your hard work. And in reality, there is little that can be done to prevent the determined thief. There are some ways of slowing them down (using secure PDFs, spreading content over multiple pages, etc), and there are lawyers to help when found out, but in reality the best defense against copying is encouraging the reader to view your content, in your context. Provide a reason why it is better to link to your content than copy it, and you may prevent one more copy.

Additionally, it may be prudent to accept that some content will be copied, and provide terms/instructions by which it can be copied “on your terms”. Eg if you’ve written a useful piece of code, let others use it providing they include a reference/link to its origin. This way, whilst you’ve not prevented the copy, what you’ve actually done is convert it into an advertisement!

If you are prepared to allow your content to be copied or developed on (within limits), consider Creative Commons licensing. This alternative to normal copyright protection allows you to specify simply and quickly the terms under which your content can be used by others. For example if you’re happy for your artwork to be used for not-for-profit work but not for commercial gain, then you can add a Creative Commons licence that provides exactly that right.

The Creative Commons movement is building a great deal of momentum worldwide. It is well worth investigating if you feel the “all-or-nothing” approach to existing copyright is not the fairest way forward for your own efforts.

If you find an unauthorised copy

If you are unlucky enough to find a site that is copying your material against your wishes, then you have a variety of options available, best approached in the order shown:

  1. contact the infringing site

    Mail/email the administrator of the infringing site, identifying which of their content is actually infringing your copyright, and detailing exactly what restitution you would like (eg remove it, mention your name, etc). When contacting them, do not immediately assume that the copying is malicious and deliberate. Sometimes the source of material cannot be identified, with even the best intentions. Try and keep it civil, at least at first!
  2. contact the infringing site’s host or service provider.

    If you are unhappy with the response from the site administrator, consider contacting the site’s host or service provider. As a business, they are often more cogniscent of the rights of others, and thus more interested in protecting their own legal interests.
  3. contact a lawyer

    If the copyright infringement is costing you serious money, then get a lawyer. And get a lawyer that specialises in copyright and/or online law. This will cost serious amounts of money, and thus only worthwhile if your reputation, or bottom-line, is being seriously impacted.

Proving it’s a copy

As you can imagine, it’s often difficult to prove someone has copied your content. Obvious clues (like file dates) are easily modified. Therefore if you are significantly worried about copying, consider “seeding” your content.

Seeding entails hiding identifying marks/symbols within your content. For example add a deliberate spelling mistake or two, use a peculiar piece of code, add some useless/unnecessary HTML tags, etc. The aim is to add something that anyone generating the page themselves would not have included; finding these in another site therefore provides strong evidence that they’ve copied your original.

Protecting your site from yourselves

Often it’s not the risk of having to sue others that you need to consider on your site. You can also easily end up where someone is in a position to sue you.

The best defense against unintentional copyright infringement is education. Make sure that all parties that contribute to your site are aware of its requirements. It is also suggested that your formal content publication process (you do have one?) includes a step/check of copyright status.

Who owns your company’s copyrights?

Whilst copyright is normally vested in the author, for employees their standard employment terms usually specify copyright of anything produced whilst employed is vested in the employer. However you might need to check this.

For others providing you with material (consultants, bureaus, contractors, etc) check the terms under which they have been employed. If needing to employ such a third party, ensure the issue of copyright is resolved in the contract.

Remember that for your company documents, just because they have been published in one format, or to one audience, does not necessarily mean that they are free to be published on your website. For example, many annual reports contain stock photos or images. These may have been purchased from a bureau without online publication permission being included in the terms.

If you’d like to copy something…

The purpose of copyright law is not to prevent copying, just to prevent unauthorised copying. Hence, if you find some content, online or otherwise, that you’d like to include on your site you may be able to. The steps to do so are quite simple.

  1. ask the author for permission to copy. If the content is online, this is easy, and often simply requires e-mailing the site owner/administrator.

    When asking, make clear exactly how/where you wish to re-use their content. We won’t give permission to someone to “copy your site”, but if you want to take this article, we’d be more sympathetic.

  2. respect the response given. This can range from “not at all”, through “yes – but with conditions” to an unqualified “yes”.

    Possible conditions can include to identify the origin of the material (with/without a link to it),
    to not alter or modify the material (eg not to take one part deliberately out of context), or not defame or denigrate the original (we don’t all want to be listed on your “worst website of the week” page). As with these examples, they are not often onerous. Most authors will be flattered you want to use their work.

Content not under your control

Your website may contain content that is not under your direct control. For example you may run a discussion forum that the public can contribute to. For such areas you need to demonstrate your own commitment to the law (by notices/terms for submitters) as well as, potentially, monitoring submissions for infringements. And if any are identified, by yourselves or another party, then they should be acted on swiftly.

I don’t want to copy it, just link to it….

For all those who consider the internet a lawless land, the law of copyright applies quite simply and fairly to it. However it is when considering the legal role of hyperlinks that the issue becomes a little greyer. With hyperlinks, sites can ostensibly include content produced
by others, without taking a physical copy. The issue becomes even fuzzier when considering frames: using them it is possible to load an entire site ‘inside your own’ and hence imply ownership of it in all total.

If your presentation of the link or content implies ownership, then you’re potentially up for double legal whammy. If the lawyers don’t pursue you for copyright infringement, then they could also pursue you for deceptive/misleading trading (in the same way as implying your homebrand PC is made by IBM by just sticking a logo on the front).

Another potential risk situation is that called ‘deep-linking’. This is where you link to content deep within a site, not to imply ownership, but to circumvent other pages/details the owning site require its users to view beforehand. For example you could replicate a job posting from a site without reproducing some of the advertisement or owner information that they require to be displayed. If in doubt, always check with the author about what conditions, if any, they will accept your links.

Conclusions

This article provides an introduction to the issue of online copyright and provides an outline of the various facets of it that may impact your organisation as it goes online.

The key point to remember is that copyright law is built to enable and manage copying and the distribution of ideas, not to restrict it. Your aim therefore, should not necessarily be to prevent all copying, but to ensure that whatever copying is undertaken under terms you have dictated.

More Information

A quick internet search will highlight a series of useful sites on which the issue of copyright can be further investigated. Some suggested starting points:

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