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What are the Basic Internet Copyright Laws?

Daphne Mallory
Daphne Mallory

Internet copyright laws are covered by existing copyright laws, but some governments have also enacted laws that specifically address Internet issues, such as the Digital Millennium Act in the United States. The laws often prohibit the illegal sharing of copyrighted material online, permit the fair use of content made available online, and hold Internet service providers (ISPs) liable if they allow users to post material without the creator’s permission. Works that are in the public domain are often not protected by Internet copyright laws. The copyrights on those works are said to be expired, and each nation has rules on how to calculate the expiration date based on the death of the creator and the original creation date. For example, in the United States, online publishers can reproduce books that were published prior to 1923 as eBooks.

Works that are published on the Internet are not subject to public domain laws. For example, a blogger cannot substantially copy an article that he found online to include on his blog and claim that the work entered the public domain when it was published on the Internet. The term public domain refers to works that are no longer protected by copyright laws because of the length of time that has lapsed from the original date of creation to the creator’s death. Copyrights are not indefinite, and once they expire by public domain law, they can be shared freely on the Internet. If works are not subject to public domain laws, then anyone who copies, distributes, or reproduces those works on the Internet is often liable for Internet copyright infringement.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

ISPs are often protected under Internet copyright laws such as the Digital Millennium Act as long as they don’t have knowledge of illegal copyright use on their servers. Creators of original works can often take advantage of those laws by directly contacting ISPs in writing and putting them on notice of copyright infringement. ISPs often launch an investigation into the allegations and remove the content when they can verify that there is a copyright infringement. For example, video sharing websites and the ISPs that host them are often contacted about movies and music videos that are posted by users and are in violation of Internet copyright laws. The owners and operators of search engines can also apply those laws and respond the same way as ISPS.

The fair use doctrine is also applicable to Internet copyright laws, allowing others to utilize content published online in news stories, in commentaries, and for teaching purposes. The creator does not have to be contacted or grant permission in those cases. For example, an online news service can take portions of a work published online by a professor to include in a news article without liability for Internet copyright infringement.

Discussion Comments


Copyright laws don't just mean a whole lot when it comes to the Internet simply because they are hard to enforce. Take, for example, people sharing music through Torrent sites, Usenet or whatever else. What they're doing is illegal, but there are so many people engaging in that practice that there's just not much of a risk of getting caught and people know that. They also know that certain ISPs and services protect the privacy of its users, so inspecting someone's activity to determine if they are doing something wrong can be a problem.

Finally, the use of proxy sites and other methods to protect privacy helps conceal activity further.

While stealing is very wrong, catching people swiping music on the Internet is difficult and some people just don't care about the moral ramifications of what they are doing. It's a hard problem to solve.

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