May, 2011
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

If It's On the Internet I Can Use it, Right?


Who doesn't love the Internet? Everything we need to know is just a few keystrokes away. And with content as king, savvy, small business owners can find the content they need for their websites, so the sites appear on the first page when consumers use the most popular search engines. There's also material for marketing publications and electronic and print newsletters.

According to Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, the Internet serves "billions of users worldwide." (You probably can guess how I found that information.) Chances are we're among those billions looking to be served.

Surely, all those old-fashioned, niggling copyright rules don't apply in this supercharged communication highway where sharing is the byword.

But they do.

Even Wikipedia, where  text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, cautions, "Copyright is complicated. This unfortunately means that Wikipedia's upload rules have to be complicated."

As complicated as copyright rules are, infringement usually can be avoided by heeding the following suggestions:
  • Do not copy and paste for your own use information found on the Internet or elsewhere unless it was published by the federal government, and

  • Do obtain permission to reprint or link to all other copyrighted information from the person or entity that holds the right.
Why bother?

There are legal consequences to infringement, even though unauthorized use of digital files often flies under the radar. For a lot of businesspeople, learning and adhering to the rules is a personal commitment — doing so because it's the right thing to do and to avoid the embarrassment of being caught taking for their own use something that belongs to another person or company.

For those who are interested in learning more about how to stay within the rules, the U.S. Copyright Office is the best source. Most of the information that follows is from there.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. It covers both published and unpublished works.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software and architecture. It does not protect facts, ideas, systems or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.

What is not protected by copyright?

Several categories of material generally are not eligible for federal copyright protection. These include, among others:
  • Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded)

  • Titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation or illustration

  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources)
  • The use of a copyright notice no longer is required under U.S. law, although it often is beneficial. It is secured automatically upon creation. Because prior law did contain such a requirement, however, the use of notice is still relevant to the copyright status of older works, and registration is useful when bringing a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.

  • Works by the U.S. government are not eligible for U.S. copyright protection.
Who owns the copyright?

Although the general rule is that the person who creates the work is its author, the exception is a work made for hire, which is a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment, or a work specially ordered or commissioned in certain specified circumstances. When a work qualifies as a work made for hire, the employer, or commissioning party, is considered to be the author.

Public domain and fair use are tricky

There are limitations or specified exemptions from copyright liability.

Public Domain

A work of authorship is in the "public domain" if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner. Never assume something is in the public domain. Confirm it before using it.

Fair Use
One of the more important limitations is the doctrine of "fair use." The doctrine of fair use has developed through a substantial number of court decisions over the years and has been codified in section 107 of the copyright law.
Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research. Section 107 also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:
  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes

  • The nature of the copyrighted work

  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole

  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

Did You Know?

• Copyrights are secured:

– Automatically upon creation
–  Without notice

• There is no specific number of words, lines or notes that may be taken without permission

• Acknowledging the source does not substitute for obtaining permission


For further information, visit the Copyright Office website at For general information about copyright, call the Copyright Public Information Office at 202-707-3000 from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm, Eastern Time. Write to Library of Congress, Copyright Office-COPUBS, 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington, DC 20559-6304.

The Copyright Office may not give legal advice. If you need information or guidance on matters such as disputes over copyright ownership, suits against possible infringers, procedures for publishing a work or methods of obtaining royalty payments, you may need to consult an attorney.