Internet & Copyright

Topics Covered


While many Web pages and other Internet resources (including software, database files, documentation, articles, graphics files, or audio or video files) are freely accessible, they are usually still protected by copyright. You may read them, use them, make links to them, and cite them in your classes and research, but you should ask permission before reproducing substantial portions, reusing materials in a publication or digital resource of your own, or redistributing materials beyond what would be covered by fair use.

In other words, the same laws and penalties that apply to making illegal copies in the library or anywhere else apply to materials found on the Internet.


How the Law Applies to the Internet

A common misunderstanding about the Internet is that anything posted online may be copied or downloaded. In truth, content on the Internet has the same potential of being protected by copyright as anything in the library or bookstore. Under modern copyright law, formal registration and copyright notice are no longer required. It is enough to merely "fix" (or render) the document in some tangible (i.e., readable or usable) form. As long as material satisfies the criteria established by law, copyright protects the work automatically.

At the same time, technology and societal expectations are changing faster than copyright laws. Students, instructors, and researchers have easier-than-ever access to materials and new technologies to reproduce, distribute, and share those materials, creating the potential for new copyright liabilities. It is now easier for owners and distributors to apply copy-protection and royalty schemes, or even lobby to curtail fair use rights. Service providers find themselves exposed to new liabilities. Legislation and court decisions have clarified some of these new technology-related issues, but much work remains, and in some cases, the new laws threaten to curtail the potential fair use of materials in a higher education setting.


Surfing the 'Net

Your computer automatically reproduces web files when you surf the Internet in various ways, even if you do not deliberately save or download files. These pages are found in the browser's cache. Is this in itself a violation of copyright?

It is helpful to understand how the copyright statute works to understand that the law applies to the Internet. The copyright statute is triggered by the unauthorized act of copying, publishing, performing (by digital means or otherwise), displaying in public, or revising (make derivatives) any copyright protected materials. Your computer automatically makes copies when you surf the Internet in various ways. One way copies are made is by simply viewing a page on the Internet. This causes a copy of that page to be made and stored in the Random Access Memory (RAM) of your computer. Browsers also make copies so you can return to a site faster. This is technically sufficient to trigger the copyright statute. Does this mean that everyone who merely surfs the Internet is liable for copyright infringement and risks being sued?

No, because of Implied Consent. Legal scholars argue that anyone who posts content on the Internet expects people to visit their site. They know that visitors¿ computers will make copies in the process, and the Web site host grants visitors an implied license or permission to make those copies.


Downloading from the Internet

Intentional downloading or "saving" content from any Web page is the equivalent to making a reproduction of the content, similar to making photocopies of a book. It is logical to presume that by doing so, you will infringe the copyright of the author of that content. To comply with copyright law, you must receive permission from the copyright holder before you download any content. The exception to this is fair use. Just as with copying materials such as library books, a fair-use analysis is necessary to determine if your use may be considered "fair."

Some Web sites expressly give permission to download content. For the most part, if they tell you that you can download from their site, you can. This assumes, of course, that they hold the copyright to the content, and that they have the authority to grant that permission. (In other words, beware of sites that have illegally reproduced their content.)


File Sharing

Presently, the most flagrant copyright-infringing activity on the Internet is sharing music, movies, or software. The music and movie industries are aggressively pursuing those who are downloading music or movies in file sharing forums such as peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed in the United States and many other countries in the world. Individuals who use the university's Internet service to download or upload music, movies, or other unauthorized materials face consequences including being sued by the RIAA or the MPAA and losing a lawsuit that costs you thousands of dollars, being charged with criminal violations, or serving prison time. Please see Your Responsibilities at Gettysburg College with Respect to Copyright Law for Information Technology policies regarding sharing music and movies.


Content in this page was used or adapted with permission from one or more institutions. Please see acknowledgements.