Websites—What’s Legal And What’s Not
The Internet has opened up a whole new perspective on copyright and ownership issues. For the most part, the same principles that govern publishing (software, books, magazines and music) apply. For business owners in a hurry to launch new ventures, or for cash-strapped entrepreneurs, it can be tempting to look for ways to get a Web site up and running fast. However, it is always a good idea to make sure that you don’t fall foul of any copyright laws and that you protect your own intellectual property.
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions. The answers will give you a good basic understanding but, if in doubt, it pays to consult a lawyer with expertise in copyright/trademark matters and intellectual property issues.
Can I use information from other people’s Web sites?
No – with rare exceptions. Copying Web site content to use for your own purposes can get you in trouble if the material is copyrighted and you haven’t obtained permission from the owner of the copyright. In many instances, the individual or business that owns the Web site also owns the information it contains—but not necessarily. Some material (copy or artwork) may be copyrighted by the person(s) responsible for developing it (not the company that owns the Web site). Either way, using someone else’s material could put you on the wrong side of the copyright laws.
Likewise, with Web site design, an outright copy of someone’s Web site most likely would be considered copyright infringement. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t learn a great deal from looking at Web sites you admire to see how the publishers have organized the content to construct the sites. You can also learn a lot about the importance of user-friendly design, graphics and color in page design. There’s a world of difference between “inspiration” and “plagiarism”. Make sure that anyone who is working on your site development understands the difference.
Are there any exceptions?
Material that is considered part of the public domain may be used without obtaining permission. It is important to make sure that the material truly is “public domain”. A lawyer can walk you through the many nuances of copyright law, and help you determine the status of the copyright on the material you have selected.
What about putting links to other sites on my Web site?
Yes. You can do this without requesting permission from the other sites. Live links are not included in current copyright laws.
How do I protect my own Website from plagiarism?
First, make sure that you own all the elements involved in your Web site (including art and photographs, data and code as well as text). If you outsourced the project, have the consultant(s) sign a contract that assigns ownership of their work on the Web site to you. Likewise, require employees who worked on your site as part of their paid employment to relinquish ownership to you. Consult your legal advisor to obtain appropriate contractual documents.
Also, put a copyright notice on your site. To ensure appropriate protection in the U.S. and overseas, it is wise to include the word “Copyright” along with the date and the name of the copyright holder as well as the copyright symbol—©
Finally, register your ownership with the Copyright Office. Without this, you cannot sue if anyone infringes on your copyrights. Your lawyer can assist with this, and with all the other protective measures outlined above.