Understanding the Basics of Copyright Laws


Do you remember the first time you logged on the internet? Most likely, since the moment you went online the World Wide Web, you never stopped using it until today. The World Wide Web is a resource as deep as a deep, blue ocean, or more accurately, the far and wide intergalactic space. The internet helped me and others make our schoolwork, research, career, and life in general, much more easier.

Most people immediately assume that any web content is public property. It’s easy to copy images, articles, fonts or videos off the net. But if you don’t have the permission from the owner, you are illegally stealing and this could lead you to many legal troubles.

Whether you are a blogger, a web designer, a writer or a simple internet user, it is important to understand the underlying internet copyright laws to avoid getting into legal trouble, or, to prevent yourself from becoming a victim of infringement and plagiarism.

Copyright in a Nutshell

Essentially, copyright means a set of exclusive rights granted to the owner to print, copy, reproduce or publish copyrighted works. Initially, the copyright law only applied to the copying of books. Over time copyright now covers a wide range of works, especially in the artistic and creative fields. Works that can be copyrighted include the following:

  • Literary works like articles, plays, scripts and stories
  • Images and pictures
  • Music, lyrics and sound recordings
  • Architectural blueprints

Image from Norebbo

Registering a copyright gives the owner the exclusive right to control reproduction of works for a period of time, depending on jurisdiction, but more recently consists of the life of the author plus a few decades.

In the US and most countries, you do not need to do anything to copyright your material. Material placed in a fixed tangible medium is automatically copyrighted. You don’t need to register for copyright although you probably should. Register your material with the US Copyright office to enforce or strengthen your rights. After registering copyright within 90 days of publication, copyright owner can receive from ‘statutory damages’.

There are works that CAN NOT be copyrighted, including the following:

  • works created or authored by the US government (except those under contract),
  • ideas and facts (best thing to keep your brilliant ideas from being stolen is to keep them to yourself)
  • reprints of public domain works
  • common property such as calendars & phone books
  • words, slogans, names and titles
  • federal laws & court decisions
  • recipes, educational procedures, discoveries, research methodologies
  • fashion styles
  • works with expired copyright
  • scientific theorems, principles, scientific laws and mathematical formulae

So it applies on the web, right?

Image from crazyengineers

One thing about the internet is that anything can be taken from you in a snap. Putting content on the internet means everyone can get access to it. Copyright does apply to the web: codes, images, web docs are all copyrighted. Reproduction can mean printing a web page, copying HTML code, CSS or JavaScript off a site, downloading media to your drive or printing an image.

Q: All content from the internet is public domain and in turn free to use. Right?

A: Wrong. Just because content on the internet is publicly accessible doesn’t mean it’s public domain. Public domain are works where copyright has expired, typically 50 years after the author’s death. Examples are: Shakespeare’s works, the English language and some Sherlock Holmes stories.

Q: Since literary works like journals, stories and articles can be copyrighted. Does it mean your blog content can be copyrighted, as well?

A: Your blog content can be stolen from you. Easily. So don’t post anything online that may contain valuable information, something you can’t afford to be stolen.

Image from Michael Kwan

Having your blog post reposted by someone else is a good thing, it can increase web traffic to your site. According to Fair Use, copyright can be infringed to a degree for strict application of the copyright law may impede the production and distribution of the work to the public.

Q: Is it copyright infringement if I have the same blog title as another blogger?

A: Generally, titles are not protected by copyright.

Q: I want to use some old photos for my site, but I can’t locate the copyright holder. What can I do?

A: This is a case of an orphan work. First of all, check with the US Copyright Office if the photos have been registered. If you’ve exhausted all means to locate the copyright owner but still haven’t found them, document your search for the copyright holder. Recount the steps in the search process to show due diligence of your search. If the owner still takes claim of copyright infringement, damages are likely to be limited. It will not include attorney’s fees, making it more troubling for the owner to pursue the claim. (Medical Library Association)

Q: I downloaded something free photos and fonts from the internet. Can I use it at whim?

A: Freeware doesn’t exactly mean public domain. Ownership of the work still remains from the creator of the work. Know and comply with the owner’s terms and conditions. You may contact the owner to get their permission to use their work, whether for personal use, school use or commercial use.

Important Terminologies

  • Fair Use – it is the exception to an exclusive right granted by the copyright law to the author or owner of a work. This allows everyone limited use to the copyrighted material without permission from the owners; especially for non-profit educational purposes. Examples for Fair use include news reports, reviews, research, commentary, etc.
  • Moral Rights – it is the rights of the copyright holder or creator to be recognized in jurisdictions, even if they assigned their copyright rights to a third party, they still have moral rights to the work. It also includes the right to have a work published in a pseudonym, or anonymously. The moral rights bars the work from any alterations or distortions. Even anything that detract the work after it leaves the artist’s ownership, they can still bring the moral rights into play. Moral rights is recognized by the Berne Convention.
  • Infringement – the violation of the copyright holder’s exclusive copyright rights. For movies, songs, music and other audio video media, illegal reproduction & distribution is known as Piracy.
  • Orphan Work – work protected by copyright whose owner is unknown, difficult to find or impossible to contact.
  • Public Domain – works that have expired copyrights or have ineligible for copyright protection. No permission is needed to use public domain works.
  • Perpetual Copyright – this is fairly rare, perpetual copyright is a finite term that is perpetually extended. Examples include the King James Bible and  J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

Copyright Laws


Copyright expires after a period of time. Copyright lasts at least the life of the author plus 5 decades after his or her death.

According to the Berne Convention (Copyright Service) the following duration period applies:

  • For photography, a minimum of 25 years from the year the photo was taken.
  • For cinematography, a minimum of 50 years from its creation.
  • Anonymous works are covered 50 years from the date it was made available to the public.

Just like a parking meter, time expires for copyright, too. (Image from Scripting)

Once the copyright period expires, the work now falls into public domain and can now be used by everyone freely. You cannot claim an expired copyrighted work, which means you can use it freely (just as everyone else) and you cannot limit others from using the work.


For an infringement to occur, the following elements must be present:

  • Owner of the work must have a valid copyright.
  • Person allegedly violating the copyright law has access to the copyrighted work.
  • Duplication of the work is outside the exceptions.

Penalties for infringement include the following:

  • Infringer pays amount of total damages and profits.
  • The court will give an injunction to stop  the violator from infringing the work.
  • The court can impound illegal works.
  • The law provides around $200 to $150,000 for the work infringed.
  • Infringer will go to jail.

If you’re a victim of plagiarism…

So you caught someone violating your copyright. What do you do next? First, do not let all that anger go into your head. Assume that the person who infringed just made an honest mistake.

If someone steals your blog post into their blog without your even acknowledging you, one can invoke the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Known as ‘notice and take down’, you can notify the person to stop using your work. If they do not, contact their ISP to know their host and voice your complaint about their users stealing your content. The host will then take action and shut down the person’s blog or site without question.

Image from shareinvestornz

If you find infringement and violation of copyright laws and haven’t registered your work yet, it’s okay. You can simply register your work to the US Copyright Office and then file suit. However, if infringement happens before registration, you cannot receive compensation for ‘statutory damages’. You will only get an injunction–or a court order to stop violator from using your work.

***Most of these copyright laws are from the US, and the laws on copyright may vary from one country to another. Check your own copyright laws for more enlightenment. It’s important to be educated with laws to not only get yourself from any unwanted trouble; but also to protect yourself from any violations.



  1. Franklin

    Another related piece of advice: always check the licensing terms on fonts before you use them with @font-face. Most commercial font foundries expressly prohibit the use of their fonts in websites, because the font can be downloaded directly from any site that uses them with @font-face.