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How the Law Applies to the Internet
Internet technology is developing faster than the laws that govern it. New laws that apply to the Internet have been established either by legislation or the courts; copyright laws are among them. A common myth about the Internet is that anything posted online can be copied or downloaded. 1 In truth, anything you see on the Internet has the same potential of being protected by copyright as anything you see in the library or bookstore. Under modern copyright law, the formalities of registration and copyright notice are no longer required. As long as material satisfies three elements,2 copyright protects the work automatically. See What Copyright Protects.
Surfing the Net
It is helpful to understand how the copyright statute works to see clearly 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. See Artist's Exclusive Rights. Your PC automatically makes copies when you surf the Internet in various ways. There is a good essay about this process by Ronald B. Standler.3 He explains that copies are made at least four different ways when accessing the Internet. 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 PC. 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 that anyone who posts content on the Internet expects people to visit their site. They know that visitors' PCs will make copies in the process, and the website host grants visitors an implied license or permission to make those copies.4
Downloading on the Net
Downloading content from any web page is the equivalent to making a copy of the content, the same as making copies of a book in the library. It makes sense 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. As in copying printed material such as books in the library, you will not need permission if you qualify for Fair Use. The complexity and uncertainty of a Fair Use analysis make it both risky and cumbersome to apply to small projects involving borrowing Internet materials. Some websites expressly give permission to download content. For the most part, if they tell you that you can download from their site, you can. That is, if they hold the copyright to the content you want to use.
Using Educational Materials from or on the Internet without Permission
In education, there are many Internet materials that could be used as teaching aids for a class or for an application in research. But it is not always possible or economically feasible to get or pay for permission. If you qualify for using materials without permission under the TEACH Act, then you also can use online materials in a face-to-face classroom setting.5 If you are concerned about using TEACH procedures—as are many universities—there is always Fair Use. Most of the Fair Use factors that apply to printed media also apply to the Internet, with the exception of posting materials on the Internet. This will, in most instances, disqualify you from Fair Use by itself. You must get permission to post other people's work on the World Wide Web. Posting anything on the World Wide Web is the same as publishing or distributing it worldwide, and publishing and distributing is the most revered of the exclusive rights of copyright holders. Why would anyone buy a book at a store if you could simply download it from a website? The best way to qualify for Fair Use when you want to post other people's work online is to use a password-protected website where only the students enrolled in a class may view the copy. You should also take technological steps to prevent students from copying the materials, such as using a streaming process.
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. See Downloading or Sharing Files/Software. Students 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. When copyright infringement, through file sharing or otherwise, occurs on the University Internet service, WSU is also vicariously liable for copyright infringement. It is in violation of the Electronic Publishing and Appropriate Use Policy to download or upload materials from the Internet without permission. Any one on campus who is discovered engaging in this activity is required to take a class in copyright law and may lose their Internet service.
The same laws and penalties that apply to making illegal copies in the library or any where else apply to the Internet. When using the University Internet service on campus, it should be remembered that any one who infringes the copyrights of others not only violates federal law, incurring significant civil and criminal liability, but also violates the University's Electronic Publishing and Appropriate Use Policy.
1 See the third myth at www.templetons.com/brad/copymyths.html.
2 17 USC Section 102; Feist Publications, Inc. vs. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991)
3 Some Observations on Copyright Law, Robert B. Standler (last update January 14, 2004) at www.rbs2.com/copyr.htm.
4 Using Materials from the Internet: What are the Rules? From The Copyright Crash Course By Gloria K. Harper (2001), www.utsystem.edu/ogc/intellectualproperty/useofnet.htm.
5 17 USC Section 110(1).