Internet Copyright Confusion

This legal discussion was written to clear up issues for both artists and website owners about copyright law and rules as it applies to the Internet. Since there are so many more thieves than artists, a lot of thieves are spreading misinformation online about copyright. Terms like "fair use" and "public domain" are being applied incorrectly in order to cover up stealing. This article will define these terms and lay out the rules of copyright law.

Oh, and before you continue reading I'd like you to know that, I, the webmaster of wrote this article and this article is copyright. You may link to this article, but you may not copy it without obtaining my permission. Not that anyone would want it.

If it's on the Internet isn't it allowed to get stolen?

The Internet is a perfectly legitimate publishing source with IBSN and ISSN numbers on top of the WWW domain name addresses we are familiar with.

Work on the Internet is just as protected by copyright as something on a DVD or Magazine.

It's easy to copy stuff from the Internet, but that doesn't make it legal. You can easily burn DVDs and photocopy magazines too. Magazines aren't allowed to steal each other's articles or photographs. Websites aren't allowed to do that either. Not to each other. Not to other media. They must have permission from the owner of the material in order to publish something.

Copyright law extends onto Internet publications - no ifs ands or buts. In regards to copyright law, stealing something from a website to put on another website is as bad as stealing from books and magazines and republishing it. A legal document called The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 makes this perfectly clear. The DMCA contains the written rules of copyright law for the Internet. If someone claims there are no rules, they are lying. The DMCA are the rules, and they hold up in court.

If other sites steal, that doesn't mean you can too. You are either following another site's bad example or setting your own bad example for other sites to follow.

If it doesn't have a (c) symbol is it not copyright?

It is a lie or at least a misunderstanding to claim the (c) is required for copyright. A (c) is a copyright notice. A (c) is not needed for copyright. The (c) is just a reminder, a notice, that there is a copyright, and also may remind people when the work was created. The (c) is shortform for the word Copyright.

Example: Copyright (c) 2006 Albino Blacksheep

All the author has to do is claim his or her work, and it is therefore copyright. He or she has 5 years since unauthorized publication to say, "I made that" just about anywhere to anyone, and it is copyright as long as he or she really created it, regardless if there is a copyright notice or not.

It does seem like most copyright works do have a (c), but many professional paintings, photographs, video footage outside of credit rolls and all audio recordings (for obvious reasons) don't have a written (c). They are still copyright since an author claims them.

For Authors: If it doesn't have the proper copyright papers is it not copyright?

This is something a thief might tell an author to make them give up in protecting their rights. Don't give up. Once you create something it becomes copyright. That's really true. You don't actually need copyright papers, but hey, it's only $30 if you want them and you can get them at any time.

Copyright papers really only exist for big companies incase a dispute between two authors arise on who created the work first incase the other steals an idea. The copyright papers have a date showing when it was copyrighted. Copyright papers are not needed to show that work is actually copyrighted. The papers are only needed to show when they were copyrighted. Theives should not trick authors by asking if they have copyright papers. They don't need copyright papers to prevent their work from being stolen.

For authors: What if I want everyone to share my work anyways?

You created it and you own the copyright. This means you get to decide where it gets published. If you want everyone in the world to have it you may say so in your work. If you want everyone to have it, but not to ever alter it, you may say that too. If you want everyone to have it only if they don't profit off of it, you have that option. Copyright is about getting to make decisions about your work.

A project called Creative Commons was created to allow authors to make these specifications so other people will know if and how they should or shouldn't share authors' work without needing to ask the author.

Isn't The Internet public domain?

The term Public domain applies to something that no entity owns, but instead belongs to all people.

The Internet, that is, the technology of the Internet is public domain. No one actually owns "the Internet" or the technology that makes it work.

However, people and companies own the lines that the Internet runs on, the servers and computers involved, and the domains and IP addresses are also owned.

Last and not least, a lot of the content on the Internet is owned by people and is NOT public domain. While "the Internet" is public domain, that doesn't necessarily mean the content on it is too.

I hope this clears things up about how the Internet is public domain, while at the same time not all things on it are too.

But they are getting their work seen!

Legally, you can never claim what is best for the author. It's up to the author, and the author only, where he or she wants his or her work seen and not seen.

Never claim that "they are lucky to have their work stolen to have it be seen by more people". There are plenty of reasons someone would not want something they made on a certain site. The site may be ugly. It may have too many ads or popups. It may have a bad reputation. It may be run by someone who is a jerk. They may just not want it associated with that site. For example, a homophobe wouldn't want a photo of himself published in Gay and Lesbian weekly. Get it? A Nobel prize winner may refuse an appearance on WWE wrestling, while it is every 12 year old's dream. Perhaps the content was made for a different site instead. Perhaps it was made for the author's own site or web space. Perhaps the author doesn't like the idea of multiple copies online. The author doesn't even have to give a reason anyways.

The next Steven Spielberg movie will sell out theatres on opening day. The next AltF4 flash will have a million hits no matter what. There's no justification in stealing either's work for the sake of getting it seen.

Never say "if it wasn't posted on such and such a place it would never be seen." With social bookmarking and link farms, that claim has proven false. It actually doesn't matter what site something is on. If it's good enough it will be seen. It doesn't matter what Internet address it's on. If the Superbowl is on a less popular station like PBS, everyone will tune into PBS to see it. Only authorized publishers deserve the traffic. Copying something can take away from traffic. The author has something to lose by having his or her work stolen.

Website visitor: What if it doesn't say who made it?

If the publisher does not show who made something while at the same time not having made it themselves, nor hired someone to make it under the publisher's name, it is plagiarized.

Plagiarism online is similar to plagiarism in school. You can copy up to a few lines from a book in your essay, but if you don't say beside those lines which book and author it's from, your essay will fail for plagiarism.

If something online doesn't say who the real author is, it's plagiarized.

There are many reasons websites plagiarize. Perhaps they don't want anyone to find the original source of the content. Perhaps they don't want the author to be located and told his or her content was stolen or perhaps they want all the glory, fame and money for themselves.

Forms of plagiarism:

  • Removing credits.
  • Covering up credits.
  • Failing to provide credits. (That's right. Even if a movie doesn't say who made it, the website displaying it must add to their webpage who made it.)
  • Adding improper or additional credits without the author's consent. "Hosted by" credits have to be added by the author since it is considered branding. On this site, ABS, the authors do this themselves but on many other sites, webmasters watermark work without the authors' permission. For this reason I am going to start asking ABS authors to add "presented by" instead. Some stores are authorized resellers of Apple Computers. Some sites are authorized hosts. One cannot make a false claim to imply they are an authorized publisher of content they don't have permission for.

Don't websites get fair use of the content?

If you are asking this then I don't think people seem to know what fair use means. Fair use is for AUTHORS and not for websites or publications. Fair use is a law made to protect authors only.

This is what it means. The authors have fair use of certain common cultural representations (like the right to draw or do an impression of a famous person) in order to CREATE new work used to parody or to educate.

So, a Saturday Night Live skit of Will Ferrell dressing up as Jeopardy's Alex Trebeck is fair use of Alex Trebeck's representation. Only Will Ferrell gets fair use of Alex Trebeck. No one gets fair use of the Saturday Night Live skit though. The skit is still copyright like any other skit from that show.

[I have fair use of this image]

You do not have the right to take others' work without permission even though they created theirs under fair use. You have to recreate your own work not based on the author's work.

Case Study:

Lidsay Lohan Doesn't Change Facial Expressions animation made for YTMND. Stolen by various websites.

The images of Lindsay Lohan were used to create a new parody work that had fair use of her representation - the only possible way to create this parody. Remember, this is one of many "Does Not Change Facial Expressions" animatons. It is a new piece of work based on material obtained under fair use. After its publication on YTMND, it was stolen and plagiarized. The thieves did not provide credit (while YTMND did have credit) and the thieves rebranded the animation.

The animation's author holds the copyright for creating the animation with material obtained under fair use. This fair use does not extend to other publishers or websites. Fair use is only a tool for the authors of new material to obtain representations for their creation as parody or education.

For webmasters: If there's stolen copyright work inside the author's work do I get to take it?:

That's no excuse. You are asking to commit two crimes. The first thing you must do to be allowed to publish the work is to have the author's permission. You can not bypass this based on the fact the author has made a mistake. The author still owns the concept of his or her work minus the stolen parts. The next step is to obtain the rights to the copyrighted work within the work or have the author do so.

For webmasters: With all this copyright nonsense, where do I get stuff for my site?

There are hundreds of places that provide free content. Just look at people who produce under Creative Commons. Sometimes all you need to do is credit them and not modify their work. There is free clipart and free icons online to use for your site. There are a couple sites that provide free games, as long as you leave their credit in tact. I know a few. You can also link to other sites as long as those sites are authorized to host the content.

There is of course public domain content, but it is often content where the copyright has expired. There are many authors that will gladly give you permission to post their content as long as you follow a few rules from them. You must contact the authors directly in order to do this.

My site didn't have much content at first and I mainly posted pictures that I took and converstions I had. I created some Winamp skins and then an ICQ skin. Once in a while I would get a new original submissions, athough they were badly made I posted them anyways, and it encouraged other people to submit their new and original content. Now, every day tons of people are submitting works that they made while giving ABS full permission to post it and many even adding ABS in the credits. It took time to get to this point, and making your own stuff, even if it's not good, really helps push things along. When I made Elvis Lives in Flash, ABS boosted in popularity. The other sites that have posted the same file did not get that same effect because it wasn't new or original to the Internet.

Why did you write this?

A lot of authors who regularly publish their work with ABS had their work stolen by other sites. By stolen I mean without their permission and also without credit provided. They couldn't even get a reply when trying to contact those sites. It helps for authors to know their rights, no matter how they feel about their work. Education is always good. ABS has always been about the authors - even when they suck, but as long as they try!

I also get a lot of emails from animators asking what they are allowed to put in their animations. They don't know what is fair use and what isn't. One person thought if he was recording video in the mall he would have to waste hours blurring out every store name. Hopfully this article will take a weight off those authors' shoulders.

Additionally, I get a lot of webmasters and TV producers asking me what are the legal rules for obtaining content. Some even telling me they want to ask permission rather than steal. This makes me happy considering there are many webmasters and TV producers who for some reason think hiding will save them if they steal. It all comes down to the author.

If you can't already tell, I come from a family of lawyers. Don't I sound like someone who almost went to law school to follow in someone's footsteps? I have always been interested in the law, and I had fun writing this article.

If you are having copyright issues online feel free to contact me and I will do by best to help, time permitting.

March 29, 2006.

Update: April 3, 2006. (Choose a Licence link suddenly broke)

Update: April 7, 2006. (Spelling errors)

Last Update: June 12, 2006. (Spelling errors still!)

A work in progress.