No matter what type of business you’re in, you probably have a website. And you probably want to regularly put interesting content on your website in order to keep it fresh and appealing.

Perhaps you develop your own copyrightable articles or images — or hire someone else to do it. No matter how your website is created and maintained, be aware of copyright law.

Copyright is a form of intellectual property that has its foundations in the U.S. Constitution and is protected by statutory laws of the United States. It protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.

Work becomes protected by copyright law the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form. Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is not required in order to receive protection but there are advantages. For example, it is necessary if you want to bring a copyright infringement lawsuit on a statutory basis.

Copyright Notice

Placing a copyright notice is not currently required under U.S. law. However, it is still a good idea to add one. For example, © 2012 John Smith. Using a copyright notice informs the public that your work is protected by copyright as well as identifying the copyright owner and the year of first publication.

Fair Use Exception

Not all use of protected material is an infringement. The fair use exception allows you to use a limited portion of a work without seeking the creator’s permission.

Under the fair use doctrine of the U.S. copyright statute, it is permissible to use limited portions of a work including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, parody, news reporting, and scholarly reports. There are no legal rules permitting the use of a specific number of words, a certain number of musical notes, or percentage of a work.

One example of fair use is a book review in a magazine or newspaper that quotes short passages of the book. While there’s no “word limit” on fair use, you can generally only copy a small portion of the work.

Copyright Infringement of Images

Many businesses have gotten in legal hot water by not fully understanding the law. For example, one supplier of photo and graphic images has sent thousands of letters to website owners demanding payment for unauthorized use. The company found its images by using “spider” or “fingerprinting” software, which continually searches the Internet. Once the software finds a match, the copyright owner verifies that the image belongs to it and generates a letter demanding a “settlement fee” of up to $1,000 or more for each image.

In some cases, the website owners simply copied images they found on the Internet and uploaded them onto their pages without paying for the rights to use them. This is clear-cut infringement. But other cases are not so straightforward. Many businesses hired third-party Web designers who didn’t obtain the proper licenses to use images. Web design firms often subcontracted work overseas where unscrupulous workers stole licensed images and incorporated them into banner ads, web templates and other products. The businesses with the infringing images on their websites had no idea until they received demand letters.

Would a company have any legal protection if it unintentionally used images in this way? While intent may play a role in a lawsuit or legal claim, the bottom line is website owners (the end users) are generally liable for any copyright infringement that occurs on their pages — even if they didn’t know about it. Ignorance of the law is generally not a defense.

Dos and Don’ts



Use a notice of copyright on your works. For example, © 2012 John Smith.Although such notice is no longer required under U.S. law, it can be beneficial. Assume that an employee creating an article or image owns the copyright. In the case of “works made for hire,” the employer is considered to be the author — and not the employee.
Purchase the right to use —  or ask for permission to use — protected content or images on your website. Confuse copyright with patents and trademarks. Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions or discoveries. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs that identifies the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishes them from others.
Register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of your work in the future. Registering gives you statutory basis for claims. Believe the argument that there are different copyright laws on the Internet. The same standards exist offline and online.

As you can see, copyright infringement on Internet websites is a serious problem. You want to ensure your company protects its copyrighted works and does not violate the rights of other copyright owners.