The Internet And Copyright Conflicts

The same copyright rules that govern the ownership and control of other copyrightable material apply to materials on the internet.  The material must be original, fixed in a tangible medium, and minimally creative.  The ability to copyright materials used in a website is not in doubt.  It is the use others of the materials in a website that raises interesting questions.


Text in a website is entitled to the same protections as text in the print medium.  The ability to copy anything off a website raises issues of how much use is allowed under the copyright laws.  Simply viewing a website is copying it because your machine has to download the materials on the website to your machine in order to display it.  An implied license is granted to do this.  After all, the purpose of putting something on the web is to let others view it.

The displayed information is usually deleted when the session is over.  Making a copy of the downloaded material is a second possible violation of the copyright laws.  However, "fair use" implies that a person can make a copy for that person's personal use.  See the Copyright section of this website.  Distributing the text to other people, however, may be beyond the fair use exception, particularly if the distribution was wide-spread and/or for profit.  An example?  Copying another person's website material and putting it into your website.

Images and Sounds

The same rules for images and sounds apply to images and sounds in a website.  The above rules for text apply here as well, although use of images and sounds may trigger an infringement claim faster than one involving text.  What can you not do?  Publish pictures of pinups copied from the Playboy site on a bulletin board.  ($1.1 million dollar award; Playboy Enterprises, Inc. v. Starware Publ. Corp.)  Allow subscribers to a web server to upload and download copies of music..  ($500,000 settlement, Frank Music Corp. v. CompuServe, Inc.., although the Digital Millennium Act now offers some protection to web servers who host websites that violate this rule.  .  See "The Server As A Party To A Lawsuit" in this website.

Modifying Images And Sounds

People have the technical ability to modify pictures and sounds but they do not have the legal right to do so.  Preparing derivative works is one of the exclusive rights a copyright owner has.  Therefore, you are not allowed to take a work owned by another person and modify it without their permission.


Websites are protected by copyright if they are original.


A database can contain every imaginable form of data or information.  It can be raw data compiled for the database or it can consist of independently created works (articles, news stories, pictures) that may or may not be independently copyrighted.  A compilation or collective work can be copyrighted itself.  However, the Supreme Court has ruled that the white pages of a telephone book are not copyrightable because they are not original enough.  It seems clear, however, that a database is probably entitled to copyright protection so be careful if you decide to use a database in a website you are creating.  Assume copyright protection exists unless you find out otherwise.


E-mail is protected the same way letters are protected.  The owner owns the copyright in the e-mail, not the person who receives the e-mail.  Fair use can be made of the e-mail and a copy made for the recipient's use, but nothing further can be done with the e-mail without the author's permission.

Works In The Public Domain

Not every work is protected by copyright.  The work may have been published in a way that barred it from being copyrighted.  (The laws in this area have changed over the years.)  Or the copyright may have expired because of the passage of time.  (See the Copyright section of this website.)  Or some parts of the material may be protected by copyright and other parts may not be.  Westlaw is a good example.  The case opinions are in the public domain but the materials added by Westlaw are protected. 

Law Offices of Douglas Clark Hollmann

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