An increasing number of people are using
the Internet for a variety of purposes. Three fourths browse the web for information. Two
thirds exchange email. One third download software by using file transfer protocol (FTP).
One in three takes part in discussion groups, and one in five is active in multimedia. The
Internet today is viewed as a vast resource of information and people browse it for text,
graphic images, sound, music, video files, and software. As more and more people are
getting exposed to Internet, everybody must clearly understand the legal issues involved
while using information available on the net. We all know and realize that breaking into a
website and stealing information (as it happened in case of BARC mail server) is a crime.
But online users may not even realize that they may be violating the copyright law by
copying information they are not authorized to. The powerful tools such as browsers and
FTP clients make the task of copying, reproducing, and distributing of any kind of
information very easy for Internet users. Therefore it is very important for every online
user to understand the copyright law as it applies to the Internet.
Almost all the information available on the
Internet is protected by copyright. It includes text, books, articles, plays, graphic
images, animation, movies, sound recordings, and broadcasts. A copyright is a right of
intellectual property granted to authors whereby they obtain, for a limited time, certain
exclusive rights to their works. Copyright can be claimed only by the person who created
the work or by a company if the work was prepared by its employee in the scope of
employee’s duties, or the work was specifically commissioned or ordered as a ‘work for
The purpose of copyright is to protect the
investment and preserve the rights of an author, artist, or other creative individual from
unauthorized use of their work. A material “fixed in a tangible form of
expression” can only be copyrighted. Since Internet browsers access data residing on
remote computers, Internet meets the requirement of “tangible expression.” The
copyright can protect the expression of an idea and not the idea itself. Generally, a
copyright is valid for the life of the author plus 50 years after the author’s death. When
copyright is registered as `work for hire,’ in the name of business, the protection is
good for 75 years regardless of the lifetime of the author or authors.
In contrast to copyright is ‘public
domain.’ A work in the public domain is one that can be freely used by anyone for any
purpose. Information that is common knowledge or in the ‘public domain’ is not eligible
for copyright protection. Items such as standard conversion tables, charts etc. are said
to lack sufficient creative effort and hence not eligible for copyright protection. But
substantially developed diagrams, explanations, illustrations, and descriptions of these
items would be eligible for copyright protection. The publications and works produced by
government are not protected by copyright. The text of court decisions, laws and statutes,
government studies, and other government publications are also not eligible for copyright
Some Misconceptions About Copyright
Some feel that if a work doesn’t have copyright notice on it, it is not
copyrighted. The truth is that everything that is created/written privately and originally
is copyrighted at the same moment. The default you should assume for other people’s works
is that they are copyrighted and may not be copied unless stated otherwise. Almost
everything available on Internet is copyrighted. It is true that a notice strengthens the
protection, by warning people, and by allowing one to get more and different damages, but
it is not necessary. The correct form for a notice is: Copyright/@[dates] by
Registering copyrights with the Copyright
Office is optional, but usually worthwhile for rights under copyright law. Unregistered
works don’t lose any right to copyright protection. One can register anytime during the
life of the copyright, and registration must be done if one wants to file a copyright
infringement suit. More damages can be claimed in a lawsuit if the copyright is registered
Another misconception people have is that
if you copy and distribute a work freely without selling it, it’s not a violation. False.
If you charge for the copied work, it will increase damages awarded in court against you.
If you don’t, it’s still a violation anyway and there can still be heavy damages if you
hurt the commercial value of the property.
“If an item is posted to Usenet, it’s
in the public domain.” This is another misconception. Nothing is in the public domain
unless the owner explicitly puts it in the public domain. Like a note from the
author/owner saying: “I grant this to the public domain.” Or, “Anybody can
freely copy, distribute, and modify the work.”
“If somebody emailed me a copy, I can
post it on Usenet or use it freely.” False. To have a copy is not to have the
copyright. So you can’t post it on the net yourself. All the email you write is
copyrighted. However, email is not a secret, unless previously agreed. So you can
certainly report on what email you are sent, and reveal what it says. You can even quote
parts of it to demonstrate. Frankly, somebody who sues over an ordinary message would
almost surely get no damages, because the message has no commercial value, but if you want
to stay strictly within the law, you should ask first.
Another widespread myth about copyright
protection is that it’s all right to use someone else’s work, as long as the author is
given ‘credit’ by mentioning his name or referencing the creator of the material. It’s
“It is OK to copy for `fair
use’.” The `fair use’ exemption to copyright law was created to allow things such as
commentary, parody, criticism, news reporting, research, and education about copyrighted
works without the permission of the author. If one copies the work for these purposes, it
is still an infringement of copyright and needs to be defended in court as for fair use.
Another factor is, one should not reproduce the full text for commentary but only small
portions which do not affect the commercial value of the work. Facts and ideas can’t be
copyrighted, but their expression and structure can be. You can always write the facts in
your own words.
International Copyright Treaties
The two major treaties governing copyright are the Berne Convention and the
Universal Copyright Convention (1971 Paris text). India is signatory to both the treaties.
The treaty is administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an
international organization headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. The Berne Convention has
four main points: National treatment, preclusion of formalities, minimum terms of
protection, and minimum exclusive rights. Under Berne, an author’s rights are respected in
another country as though the author was a national (citizen) of that country (Art. 5(1)).
For example, works by US authors are protected by Indian copyright in India, and vice
versa, because both the US and India are signatories to Berne.
With this background about copyright law on
the net, it should now be possible for a net user to be more responsible and avoid getting
into any legal problems arising from copyright violation.