What Is the Importance of Copyright Laws on the Web?

by David Carnes
Internet technology has created a vast array of new copyright issues.

Internet technology has created a vast array of new copyright issues.

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During times of rapid technological advance, the law often lags behind. This is nowhere more true than on the Web, where technological advances and the sheer volume of traffic have resulted in countless copyright violations. Although legislation and enforcement strategies are adjusting gradually, serious challenges remain.

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Scope of Protection

Technological innovations appearing on the Web have significantly expanded the types of works that are entitled to copyright protection. Protected works include links, digital graphics, digital audio and video, markup language sequences such as html and other unique elements of websites. Even compiled lists of websites can be protected if they are unique enough. Future technological innovations will likely further expand the scope of copyright protection.

Illegal Uploading and Downloading

Illegal uploading and downloading of copyrighted material, such as on peer-to-peer file sharing networks, has become possible because of advances in digital technology. Although copyright law prohibits such activity, strict enforcement is virtually impossible because of the number of violations that occur. Instead, interested parties are attempting to deter copyright violations by launching high-profile infringement lawsuits against users. The Recording Industry Association of America, an organization that represents several major record labels, has filed hundreds of infringement lawsuits against users of peer-to-peer networks.

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act went into force in 1998 to implement two copyright treaties signed by the U.S. Its purpose is to revise copyright law to account for technological advances. The portion of the law most relevant to the Web insulates interactive websites such as YouTube and Facebook from legal liability when users upload infringing material. To obtain immunity from liability, these sites are required to institute procedures to allow copyright holders to file complaints about infringing uploaded material and to remove the material in response to these complaints. Without the DMCA, interactive websites might be forced to shut down because of the potential legal liability.

Fair Use

The fair use doctrine allows users of the Web to upload or download limited portions of a copyrighted work for purposes such as education, parody, criticism or commentary. Fair use never permits the use of an entire work, however. The fair use doctrine appears to be widely misunderstood by users who upload videos featuring entire songs to websites such as YouTube and include a statement asserting that the fair use doctrine applies to their use of the work.


Since the Web is global, copyright violations occurring in one jurisdiction affect every other jurisdiction -- illegal uploads, for example, can be downloaded worldwide. Copyright law, however, is national, although international copyright treaties have added a global element to protection. Copyright holders in one country have difficulty enforcing their rights in other countries where enforcement is weak.