Before beginning this article I must let you know that I am not a lawyer and have no legal training. Although most of the information contained in this article is backed up by information given on the websites of legal professionals, I can take no responsibility for any legal problems arising from issues in this article. This article should not replace the advice of a legal professional and if in doubt of any details you should contact a lawyer or your local copyrights office.
Over the past few years, the issue of copyright on the internet has become a very important issue. The main reason for this has been the increasing amount of illegal MP3s circulating with systems such as Napster. This article, though, deals with the copyright on your own website, where most, if not all, the content has been created by you.
The first part of this I will deal with is the copyright restrictions on including information on your website. A copyright is basically a law stating that you cannot copy a piece of work (be it an image, piece of writing or a web page) without the author's permission. There are 3 exceptions to this rule, though. Firstly, works only remain in copyright until 70 years after the author's death. After this they return to the Public Domain. A second exception is works which the author has placed in the Public Domain. This means that anyone can copy and/or distribute the work freely. A third time when you can use a copyrighted work is if you have paid or been given a license to do this. For example if you buy a Microsoft product, the clipart is licensed to you for use in all commercial applications (see the Microsoft site for more details).
This law means that you must be extremely careful what you include on your website. You could be invalidating copyright laws if you use someone elses web design, text, images, photographs, midi files or sound files; include your own reproductions of copyrighted works (like an MP3 taken from a CD you own); or even linking to part of a website inside your own frames (although the law is not very clear on this point). The best thing to do if you want to include someone else's work on your website is to check with them first. I will return to the issue of paying people to write articles etc. later.
The second main point which most people are interested in is how to copyright their own web pages. In fact, there is no special process which must be taken to copyright a page. Any original work which you produce is automatically copyrighted to you as soon as you have created it. For example, as soon as you save a document you have typed in word, you now own the copyright on it. Owning the copyright, though, does not totally protect you from unauthorized copying. This is because you may find it very difficult to prove that you are the original author of a piece of work. Also, you will have to pay all the legal costs involved in taking action against the other person.
To show your copyright you should add the following to the bottom of your
Copyright (or ©) *Year* *Your Name*
Copyright 2001 David Gowans
To overcome the problems of copyright, you can register your copyright with the copyright office. This will mean that there is a record of your copyright and it can be much more easily defended in the case of a breach of copyright. There is also the benefit that the penalty for breaching a registered copyright is much higher than for an unregistered one and you may be able to claim back some or all of your legal costs.
There are separate copyright offices for each country around the world but the US copyright office can be accessed at www.copyright.gov. This includes lots of information on copyright and how to apply. In the USA you must send a copy of the work to be copyrighted, an application form and a $30 registration fee. As you can see, if you have created soemething which you feel is very important to be copyrighted it is certainly w
orth registering it.
The third important aspect of copyright is what happens to work that has been created for someone else, for example designing a web page for someone or writing an article for someone. In most cases, the contract should state who will own the copyright of a piece of work. In most cases the customer will own the copyright, such as when a journalist writes an article for a magazine, but in some cases the author may retain the copyright (this happens quite often in web design situations). To avoid copyright problems it is always best to specify in the contract, though.
Hopefully, this information should help you to understand the copyright laws and how they affect your website. I must again stress that I have no legal training and that I cannot guarantee the correctness of all this information.
1999 - 2003 David Gowans