copyright law for the web

Copyright on the Internet – What’s Legal?


This is a Brief Overview of Copyright on the World Wide Web

Anything said here is information gathered from other sources (which I cite), and I also give my own non-legally binding observations and sage advice.

Phew!  I think I covered my butt pretty well there. Onward…

Copyright Law On the Books

In the late 1990’s, there was a federal act written to amend the existing Copyright Act of 1976. It is called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  This law attempted to address this new frontier of information sharing called the World Wide Web.

For you legal eagles who are able to actually read these sorts of documents, here is the actual Copyright Office summary of the act.

There are several new additions to this law, since the DMCA was written in the early days of the web. Obviously this technology has progressed to places most of us could not foresee.

As I started digging into this topic, I wondered about the original copyright laws of our country and their purpose. The origin of United States copyright law began with the Copyright Act of 1790. Don’t worry, I’m not digressing into a history lesson. But it’s good to have well-rounded knowledge on this topic.

The original act document opens with this:

“An Act for the encouragement of learning, by securing the copies of maps, Charts, And books, to the authors and proprietors of such copies, during the times therein mentioned.”

So the original focus was for the encouragement of learning, which I believe meant that it was beneficial to the person sharing his knowledge with others; that he would receive any credit or financial gains. Then we the people can know what the writer knows.

So when you want to write a blog article and you need to use other sources for data, what do you do?

Remember back in the day (now I’m going way back to the time of rotary phones and dinosaurs), when you had to do term papers and all you had were books and encyclopedias for your information?  How were you instructed to use those sources?  First you had to put the ideas you read into your own words, or paraphrase. But then what else?  You had to also have a Citation mark and page where you gave credit for that idea.

How to Avoid Plagiarism on Your Blog or Website by Nick Schäferhoff

It is important to note as mentioned previously: fact is not copyrighted, but creativity is.

If you write something that is a known fact, you are safe.  If you write ideas from your own head based on facts that you know, you are safe.  Even if you read several articles about a topic and then write about the summation of ideas you read, you are probably still okay.

But when pulling quotes, specific ideas, article titles or the like, you need to give credit. Many creators of information (written or graphic) want you to ask their permission first! If you can get a hold of them, this is a really good idea too.

Here’s what I do.  As done in this article, I mention an idea I found on a website, and then provide the link to that article. I will also mention the source of that information as well.  If I pull a quote from an article, I am careful to show it as a quote with italics or quotation marks and then cite the author right underneath it.

What about Photos and Illustrations?

Regarding using images and photos, I’m more black and white on this issue (ha, that’s punny). NEVER just grab an image from a Google search and use it as your own!  Just because images come up in a Google search, does not make them fair game!  If you find an image you like in Google (or Bing, Yahoo, etc.), you can click on that image to go to the article of origin and ask permission.  But many times those images that come up were purchased stock photos; so the original writer bought the rights to use those images. That means if you want to use an image you see on someone else’s site,  you have to go and buy the rights too!

I strongly suggest you either shoot your own photos (only if you’re good at it), make your own illustrations (only if you’re good at it), try to find decent legitimately free images (see below for some resources), or purchase graphics from a stock house such as iStockphoto which has a full array of photos organized into filtering categories. If you’re in iStockphoto’s site and you’re looking for “woman with microphone” and select the filter “photo,” you will only see search results of photographs with those keywords you entered.  You purchase credits to buy the photos. Photos are generally either 1 or 3 credits, but you can choose any size photo you want. They also have illustrations and videos for purchase.

Shutterstock also has a full selection of photos, illustrations and videos as both these companies have been in business for quite a while.  Their collections continue to grow and they are viewed as an honest safe place to sell your work and to purchase work for your projects.

These are great sources for graphics and you just pay a 1-time fee of usually between $10 and $30 (at the time of writing this article).  These are my go-to’s for stock images, and for full disclosure, I am an affiliate of both of these providers because I think they are such good resources. I only affiliate with products in which I believe! You don’t have to, but if you click the above links to view and/or purchase any images, it helps me out a little. Thanks.

Other good graphics sources are:

  • Dreamstime
  • Stock Adobe
  • Image Source
  • Corbis
    Fine quality images, but high priced. Offers more use options.
  • Morgue File
    Free photos, but must give photographer credit
  • Gratisotography
    Free photos, but limited supply. Not your usual stock photos.
  • Pic Jumbo
    Free photos
  • New Old Stock
    A collection of vintage photos which they claim are “free of known copyright restrictions.”  Interesting stuff. I just recently found this one and hope to figure out how to use those images.

There are many more out there. You can search for royalty-free (which means you have a 1-time only purchase price), or you can search for free photos. Just be prudent when searching for free sites. If you find yourself going down a rabbit hole of portal pages, never actually getting to free images, bail and start over!

Take Aways


  • When in doubt, cite sources.  It will keep you out of trouble.
  • When writing what you already know, there is no need to cite anyone.
  • Fact is not copyrighted.
  • Anything YOU write that is original is automatically copyrighted. You do not have to register anywhere.


  • Never just grab an image off the web for your own web page or blog post. If you do, you may get away with it, but it’s a gamble. These stock image companies have people that search the Internet for misuse of their images!
  • If you have the capabilities, make your own graphics. These will also be automatically copyrighted. But if you’re not good at it, don’t do it, as it will detract from your message.
  • Play it safe, and go to one or more of the sources I provided above. There are free images out there.  Always check the licenses.

For both writing and graphics used from other sources, just be on the up and up.  Don’t try to get away with something. Don’t misuse the content.

Obviously there are tons of information on this topic and it is still confusing if you ask me. As I said before, I’m not a lawyer and you probably aren’t either (though if you are, I would love to get your perspective).  That’s why I just say be upfront, play it safe; ask permission, acquire graphics through an established distributor, and cite authors and websites when using their findings, quotes or ideas.

If you ever do find yourself in trouble with copyright or you feel your rights have been infringed upon, you need to find a copyright lawyer that specializes in Internet law.

Have you ever run into any copyright problems?  Have you had your own content stolen? Share your experiences here!  You may be helping someone else.

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