What is Copyright? – An Introduction to Copyright Basics

If you are going to participate in the great World Wide Web experiment, you need to understand copyright law. What is copyright? This introduction to copyright basics covers the fundamental elements of the legal concept.

What is Copyright?

Copyright law protects original works of authorship in tangible form. A classic example of a copyrighted work is a book. The Harry Potter books are original works of authorship because they represent original stories. If I start copying and reselling those books, I am infringing on J.K. Rowling’s copyrights, and she can sue me accordingly.

This concept applies to the web in many ways as well, and you should recognize as much. The wide open nature of the Internet makes it easy for people to copy and repost items. If you do not have permission to use the copied images, you may well be infringing on the copyright of the owner. The answer to avoiding this problem is to go to sites licensing content. You can find plenty of websites licensing music, photos and even videos you can use on your site.

Copyright Basics

When discussing copyright basics, let’s first focus on the odd nature of this property right. A copyright protects the tangible form of the original work in question, but it does not protect the idea encased in the work. Let’s return to our Harry Potter example to show how this might work.

The Potter books are obviously about a boy going to school to become a wizard and so on. If I copy the language in the books, then I am infringing on the work. I am not barred, however, from using the idea expressed in the books to write another story. I can write a different set of books based on a young boy who wants to become a wizard. In fact, this is what occurred after Potter became such an enormous hit and usually happens for any successful project.

Let’s apply this to the web. I decide to start a website and need a photograph of a happy couple. If I do a search on Google images, I will find plenty of pictures. Can I just copy them and post them on my site? No. I don’t have permission to use the exact image. I can, however, go take my own picture of a happy couple [even the same couple] and use it. Copyright law prohibits me from using the exact photo, but not the idea expressed in it.

How long does a copyright last? A long time. If the original work is created after 1978, it continues for the life of the person creating it plus another 70 years. If I publish a book today and live another 40 years, the copyright on the work would last 110 years from today. Who would own it after I died? My heirs.


There is a specialized law that applies to copyright issues online. The law is known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or “DMCA.” The law was created in 1998 in an attempt to streamline the process by which online copyright complaints could be handled without court intervention.

The law is applicable to sites allowing user-generated content. For example, Facebook allows members to post whatever they like on the site. The volume of people posting to the site, however, is such that there is no way Facebook could ever monitor all the posts for copyright issues.

The DMCA addresses this issue by giving sites immunity from being sued for copyright infringement for content posted by users of the site. The immunity exists so long as the site complies with a procedure detailed in the law. In general, the process starts with the copyright owner complaining to the DMCA agent for the site. The site then automatically takes down the allegedly offending content and alerts the posting party about the complaint. The posting party can then contest the claim. If this occurs, the site informs the copyright holder who then must decide whether to sue the posting individual.

Importantly, the site cannot be sued for monetary damages in the above scenario. This immunity is what keeps Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other companies from being pushed into bankruptcy on a wave of copyright infringement lawsuits.

In Closing

Copyright law is perpetually a hot topic on the web. From the days of Napster to the current issues surrounding social media, copyright disputes are here to stay. Before you copy or repost something, keep this in mind. If you own a site, make sure you determine if it is necessary to comply with the DMCA.

Richard A. Chapo, Esq.