What Is the Importance of Copyright Laws on the Web?

By David Carnes

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.

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.

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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.

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Copyright Laws & Video Games


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Are Commercials Copyrighted?

With the free accessibility of information and creative content over the Internet, it can be hard to know what is legally available to take and enjoy for free. It can be confusing to realize that something that may be free and legal to enjoy in one context may not be in another context. Most people think of commercials as a free bit of advertising that they are subjected to when they watch television or listen to the radio. Just because a commercial is broadcast for free through certain media does not mean that it is legal for anybody to upload the commercial on YouTube or post it for download on a website. Commercials are copyrighted, and only authorized parties may broadcast, copy or distribute them.

Does a Copyright Protect an Author's Creative Idea?

Copyright laws give authors and other creators property rights for their works of original authorship, including the rights to reproduce, distribute, and display their works. One of the fundamental principles of copyright law is that a copyright protects expressions but not creative ideas. Although this basic rule seems straightforward, it may be difficult to apply in some cases.

How Can a Company Check for Infringement of Its Copyrights?

Copyright infringement is a big concern for companies that want to protect their photos and text. The law protects original works that are fixed in a tangible medium, such as written works, photos, movies, software, and songs. It's important to remember that a copyright protects original works but it does not protect mere ideas, such as a plot idea for a novel, or facts. Infringement generally occurs when an original work is reproduced without permission or citation. Companies can access a variety of online tools to check for copyright infringement.

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