Note: WhatisCopyright.org is a non-profit web site that contains basic and general copyright information provided for educational purposes only. The author and owner of this web site does not answer copyright questions, debate or provide free legal advice.

Introduction.

This page covers the basic definitions regarding copyrights. It has been written using the Berne Union for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Property (Berne Convention) as the main bibliographical source (other sources are credited at foot of this page), and does not refer to the laws of any country in particular. Therefore, comparing this document to the particular laws of your country may arise in discrepancies. Copyright laws vary from country to country but as a rule do not contravene or provide less copyright protection than the Berne Convention, provided the country in question is a member thereof.

What is a Copyright?

Copyright is a protection that covers published and unpublished literary, scientific and artistic works, whatever the form of expression, provided such works are fixed in a tangible or material form. This means that if you can see it, hear it and/or touch it - it may be protected. If it is an essay, if it is a play, if it is a song, if it is a funky original dance move, if it is a photograph, HTML coding or a computer graphic that can be set on paper, recorded on tape or saved to a hard drive, it may be protected. Copyright laws grant the creator the exclusive right to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute, perform and display the work publicly. Exclusive means only the creator of such work, not anybody who has access to it and decides to grab it.

When does Copyright Protection begin, and what is required?

Copyright protection begins when any of the above described work is actually created and fixed in a tangible form.

For example, let's say that someone dabbles in music and lives in the United States. When he/she writes new lyrics, he/she prints them out on paper, signs his/her name at the bottom with the Copyright symbol to show that he/she is the author. Copyright begins at the moment the lyrics are printed out on paper, or fixed in a tangible form. Further proof can be created by putting the lyrics in an envelope and mailing it as the postmark can establish the date of creation. It is then advisable to register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office as needed in order to be able to sue for monetary damages should a violation of copyright occur. However, if somebody else copies and redistributes those lyrics without permission before the copyright is registered, the true author would still be able to assert a copyright claim if necessary.

The above applies to digital art and graphics. Open a gif, jpg or png file that you created and look at the properties. It states the date that you saved it to your hard drive as the date of creation. For better protection, back up everything on a cd or disk and put it in a safe place.

Somebody once asked if it was "illegal" to place the copyright symbol next to your name if you have not registered your copyright. Unless you are not the true author of the work, it is not illegal to place the copyright symbol next to your name - it is your right to do so.

The proper way to place a copyright notice is as follows: Copyright (first date of creation) (name of owner). Like this: Copyright 2010 John Smith.

When does Copyright Protection end, or expire?

If a copyright statement reads, " Copyright 1998, 1999 John Smith." does that mean that John Smith's copyright expired in 1999? The dates that you see in a copyright statement do not refer to the dates that the owner's material will expire and become public domain - they actually refer to the dates that the material was created and/or modified.

When you see several dates in a copyright statement, it means that certain things were created in one year and modified later. It could also mean that new things were created and added in a later year. It most definitely does not refer to the date that a copyright will expire. Expiration of a copyright actually takes place much later, and this period of validity begins from the date that you see in the copyright statement. The Berne Convention establishes a general and minimum period that lasts the life of the author and fifty years after his or her death. Cinematographic works and photographic works have a minimum period of protection of 50 and 25 years upon the date of creation, respectively. This applies to any country that has signed the Berne Convention, and these are just the minimum periods of protection. A member country is entitled to establish greater periods of protection, but never less than what has been established by the Berne Convention.

So, what does all this mean? This means that if a copyright statement reads, " Copyright 1998, 1999 John Smith" and John Smith is from a country that has signed the Berne Convention, he created his works in 1998 and 1999, and his copyright is not going to expire until at least fifty years after he dies (this period may be greater - remember that member countries may establish longer periods of protection). Until that time his works are not in public domain.

I have actually seen copyright statements with future dates, such as " Copyright 2020 John Smith", most likely because the copyright holder thought that an expiration date for the copyright could be established just by writing down a later year. This is incorrect unless John Smith travels to the future and creates the work in question, then comes back to right now and writes down that future date. These types of copyright statements also mislead others to believe that dates in a copyright statement refer to the date a copyright expire, when the date should really refer to the date of creation.

The Famous Symbol.

Why does it say Copyright 1998-2010 WhatisCopyright.org at the bottom this webpage? Those are the dates that I created and/or modified the layout, text, graphics and other material displayed on this web site and saved it to my hard drive. That entitles me to claim copyright. Only I, as the author and creator of this work, am entitled to use, reproduce and distribute this material unless someone else who wishes to use it obtains my prior written permission to use it as well, and only in the manner that I previously approve. That also means that nobody may access my web site and copy my layout, text or graphics until I provide a written document that states, "Yes, you can use my work, but only in the manner that I deem appropriate." This especially goes for those who want to use my material for lucrative purposes. This same principle should apply to everyone who creates and publishes original works and displays them on the web.

Would you let someone sell letters you've written for publication in a magazine without your permission, and particularly without getting some of the profit? Anybody who uses, copies or distributes my material in any manner, for commercial or personal purposes, without my written permission, would be committing an infringement of my copyright. It doesn't matter if the person committing the violation is a "newbie" and/or "doesn't know what copyright infringement is". As a principle of law states: "Ignorance of the Law does not make one exempt from compliance thereof." Using other people's work always implies some level of responsibility, so it's advisable to take the time to learn what that responsibility is before using the work.

Copyrights and the Internet.

Public domain - not!

When visiting a web site, it is so easy to click and save with a mouse button when one sees a graphic image or photo that one likes, or to view the source code and copy part of or all of the HTML coding because one "likes the way this or that was done" or one "wants a similar layout", or to copy original writings because "that person expresses this or that so well". The general (and incorrect) notion is that anything that is on the internet is public domain and may be taken without permission from the creator/owner. Some people actually think (incorrectly) that just because bits of web pages may be stored in one's cache, or because certain browsers allow one to do "file save as" moves or anything similar one may use such material as one wishes. This is false.

Just because your driveway is not inside of your house, is it in the public domain? Does that give anybody off the street the right to stay on your driveway without your permission, even if they can see it from the street, or easily access it? The same basic principle applies to material published on the internet. Material found on the web may be copied freely only if the information is created by the (i) federal government, (ii) if the copyright has expired or (iii) the copyright has been abandoned by the holder. Therefore, "internet" and "public domain" are not synonymous. Any work published on the internet is not automatically placed it in the public domain, unless the material in question complies with one or more of the characteristics mentioned.

Material provided by others and used with permission.

Sound files, graphic images (including web graphics, photos, logos and other digital art), writings, text, HTML, cascading style sheets, javascripts or any other material that you are given permission to use or display on your web site does not entitle you to claim copyright to the material in question. Permission to use someone else's material does not make you the rightful owner or holder; it just grants you a license to use it under the real owner's conditions.

The copyright notice at the bottom of a website only pertains to the content that one has actually created, not to what was created by another and is being used with permission. Owner's terms may vary, but it is always best to include text on the same page where the material on loan is being used to specify who the real owner is, and that it is being used with permission. To an extent, this would protect you as well as the appropriate owner as it would be notifying the public that the material is owned by someone...if you failed to properly protect someone else's work that you are using and it turns out that someone else swiped it due to your misuse or negligence you may be subjecting yourself to a claim.

"Free" web graphics, stock photography and linking images.

Graphic images provided by "free" or "linkware" graphics sites and stock photography are not public domain. These images, although provided to you for free or a fee, are not being given to you in ownership. You are being allowed to use them if you comply with the owner's terms and conditions, so make sure that you comply with them in full when you use or display the works in question. If the owner says "don't alter it", don't alter it. If the owner says, "only use for your personal homepage," only use it for your personal homepage. The same applies to linking images or logos. They are still copyrighted by the owner and are usually only to be used for links to the owner's web site. Again, in these cases the symbol at the bottom of your web site only pertains to the content that you yourself created, not to the graphics, stock photography or logos provided to you for use.

What about public domain and/or royalty-free stuff?

Sound files, graphic images (including web graphics, stock photos, logos and other digital art), writings, HTML, cascading style sheets, javascripts or anything else that has been placed in the public domain does not grant you the right to claim copyright to it just because you find it and use it. Your copyright statement only refers to the content that you created yourself, not to the public domain material you're using. In this case, you cannot complain if you find the same material on someone else's site.

Word of caution: If you are not 100% sure that the material is in the public domain (sometimes "free sites" offer copyrighted material), do not use it. Placing disclaimers that read, "if you find anything on this page that belongs to someone else contact me" or "if you feel that I may be violating someone's copyright please let me know" just don't cut it and may even be considered irresponsible. You still may be violating somebody's copyright.

Hey - everyone knows that HTML coding and web page or blog layouts cannot be copyrighted!

Based upon what? A layout may be copyrighted if it is actually written and/or designed by the author and has been fixed in a tangible medium by being saved to a hard drive, cd, disk, etc. However, this only applies if one actually wrote the HTML coding and designed the web page layout by oneself (even if one uses an HTML editor). If one copies and pastes HTML from one web page into another one may not claim copyright. It is not an original work, and may even be construed as copyright infringement.

There is one thing that must be clarified, though. If you see a certain page layout and like the way it looks, you could "legally" reproduce something similar if you write the coding all by yourself without copying any of the source code from the original page. The actual intangible idea may not be copyrighted. What is copyrighted is the tangible result of the idea, which would be the layout written out in HTML coding and saved to a hard drive. That means no copying and pasting huge chunks or the entirety of another person's source code.

Here is an example: If I have the "idea" to make a webpage about roses, that idea cannot be copyrighted because an idea itself will always be intangible. What is copyrighted are the tangible works I produce of the idea. These would be the descriptions I write, my photos of roses, and the HTML coding I created to design the page layout - all saved in my computer's hard drive. All of that is my idea fixed in a tangible medium and that is protected by my copyright. However, somebody else could come along, learn of the idea I had to create a web page about roses, and create a web page about roses as well - provided such person wrote his/her OWN words, used his/her OWN photos, and wrote his/her OWN HTML coding to design the page. Further, if such person was "inspired" by my web page layout, and decided to do something similar (similar - not identical), he or she could do that if the HTML were written entirely by this person without any copying or pasting. All of that is "legal"; whether it is imaginative and creative, well, that is something else. Now, if this person came along, saw my web page on roses, liked the way I did it and then copied and pasted my HTML into his or her own web page without my permission, that is copyright infringement, even if he or she deleted certain things and inserted his or her OWN words and his or her OWN photos. Yes, even if he or she did NOT have a web page about roses, but about something entirely different. That is because my page layout was written out in HTML and set in a fixed form, and the fixed form is what was copied without my permission.

What if I take someone else's writings, text, HTML or graphic image and change it around to suit my needs? I own the "new" version, right?

If you did any of that with the original owner's permission, and according to his/her terms and conditions than you own the "new" version. If not you may be committing copyright infringement and/or plagiarism, especially if you don't credit your source.

What if I translate an existing written work, like your copyright page, into another language? I bet I don't need your permission, and I own the "new" work!

The Berne Convention states, "Authors of literary and artistic works protected by this Convention shall enjoy the exclusive right of making and of authorizing the translation of their works throughout the term of protection of their rights in the original works."

That means that you need my permission to translate this page into another language. Also, there is not really a "new" work. You have merely translated an existing work into another language. You own the full copyright to the translation only, and even if you have my permission to translate it, you still need to credit me within the translation as author of the original work. 

Hot-linking and Spider Harvesting.

Hot-linking, or linking directly to another website's images and/or spider-harvesting (robots programmed to index pages and pull images onto another server) is not only bandwith theft, but may also be construed as copyright infringement in some cases. The images that are hot-linked are reproduced in the website that is performing the direct linking and/or spider-harvesting as an unauthorized derivative work, or may be giving the impression that the owner of the images is the one who is hot-linking. Either may constitute a violation of the real owner's copyright.

Fonts and Dingbats.

Scanned designs converted into fonts and/or dingbats, or reduplication/refabrication/alteration of existing ones are not original designs, and do not entitle the individual to claim ownership. Fonts and dingbats created point by point, drawn from scratch or through similar means are copyrighted by the author. If this weren't the case, original font and dingbat creators would not be able to legally sell their creations or establish terms and conditions for use.

Fair Use.

Fair use or fair practice is utilization of a portion of a copyrighted work "as is" for purposes of "parody, news reporting, research and education about such copyrighted work" without the permission of the author. Use of copyrighted works, or portions thereof, for any other purpose is not deemed fair use. Scanning a photo of the Amazon Forest printed in National Geographic, and using it without permission on your personal web site where you write about your family trip to South America will most likely not be considered as fair use. However, if you republished the photo on your site to comment on the photo as it was published in National Geographic, this might be considered fair use. You still have to credit your source by naming the author of the work on the same page. If possible, take the time to contact the owner and request permission to use the owner's work.

Many think that one may take someone else's work and use it for "educational" purposes without obtaining the author's permission or giving credit because it is fair use. When you wrote a term paper in school, didn't you credit your sources? Even if you paraphrased the author's original words, or if you feel that you don't need the author's permission because it falls in this vague concept of fair use you must credit your source's hard work by naming your source as a reference. If not, you'd be committing plagiarism.

International Copyrights.

There are no "international copyrights" that enable you protect your work throughout the world. However, most countries are members of the Berne Convention and the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC), which allow you to protect your works in countries of which you are not a citizen or national. Under these treaties, the following works may be protected: (i) both unpublished and published works of an author who is a national or resident of a country that is a member of these treaties; or (ii) published works, with permission, of an author who is not a national or resident of a country that is a member of these treaties. In this case a work may be considered simultaneously published in several countries if it has been published in two or more Berne Union countries within 30 days of its first publication.

To benefit from the above protection, there are no formal requirements established in the Berne Convention other than having the author's name on the work. Under the UCC, a copyright notice is required. This notice should consist of the copyright symbol "" accompanied by the year of first publication and the name of the copyright owner, for example: Copyright 2002 John Smith. This notice is to be placed in such manner and location as to give reasonable notice of the claim to copyright.

So, what does this mean? Well, if John Smith is a resident of Canada (member of the treaties), and if somebody in the United States (also a member country) accesses John Smith's website, which complies with (i) and (ii) above and displays the proper notice of Copyright 2002 John Smith (as required by the UCC) John Smith's work is considered to be "published", and therefore protected, in the United States as well as in Canada.

Bibliographical sources for this page and additional resources:

  • Thank you to Cornell Law School for making available the Berne Union for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Property (non-profit web site) [broken link: 2007].
  • Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Property. [Link added: March 2007].
  • Current text of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Property. [Link added: March 2007.]
  • Intellectual Property Law directory at Yahoo!
  • Bitlaw - A Resource for Technology Law (U.S. based web site), with very useful information regarding intellectual property in general and internet publishing.
  • Use of the information at this site.

    Creating similar pages. None of the contents of this web site - whether it be text, HTML or graphic images - may be mirrored, reproduced, or displayed in whole or in part on another web page or web site (whatever the nature or purpose) or in any publication or collection of widespread circulation, whether offline or online (whatever the nature or purpose). If you would like to write your own copyright disclaimer, copyright page or anything similar and you use my information as a source to write it you must reference me as such somewhere on your document with a link to http://www.whatiscopyright.org - even if you consider it "fair use" (read the above paragraph regarding "fair use") and even if my words are paraphrased.

    Translations into other languages of the contents at WhatisCopyright.org are not authorized their compliance with original and corresponding legislation cannot be verified by the author of WhatisCopyright.org. However, brief summaries of this document into other languages are permitted provided i) any such summary does not exceed 1,500 characters in length, ii) a link to http://www.whatiscopyright.org is included on the same page the summary published (a link only, do not copy and publish this page at the location of the summary!), and iii) a disclaimer that states that the translation was made and that it may not be true to the actual language of the document at http://www.whatiscopyright.org is included at the foot of the summary in question. Please include the date as well. Due to the legal nature of this document, all three of these conditions need to be be fulfilled.

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    *None of contents at WhatisCopyright.org may be mirrored or duplicated verbatim on another web site, even for educational purposes. Publishing it without permission is a violation of the author of WhatisCopyright.org, which defeats the purpose of this page. If you find the text on this site useful, link to it. Don't steal it.

    Linking to this site. If you'd like to link to http://www.whatiscopyright.org you are welcome to do so, but please do not place your link in such a manner as to mislead others to believe that this page is a part of your web site, or as an "exit door" from your site without your visitors knowing where they are going. People have done this in the past and it causes such visitors to think that the author of WhatisCopyright.org is the owner of your site, or viceversa. Additionally, spamming guestbooks, mailing lists or anything similar with this URL is also not allowed.

    If you still have copyright questions or issues that need resolving, this is not an all-inclusive legal opinion. This is a non-profit web site that contains very basic and general copyright information provided for educational purposes only. Although written by a corporate attorney copyright questions on an individual basis are not answered, arguments/opposing opinions are disregarded (and not even read) and free legal advice is not provided. If you have further questions regarding copyrights please retain an intellectual property attorney.

    Please note that this is NOT a U.S. based site and it does not refer to the laws of any country in particular. The source of the information provided at WhatisCopyright.org is the Berne Convention in order that any individual or company who resides in a country that has signed the Berne Convention may benefit from this text. Copyright laws from country to country may vary but never contravene or provide less copyright protection than the Berne Convention.


    Created October 1998
    Updated March 20, 2010