Copyright in the Digital World

What do I need to know when I am working online?

Copyright (or author’s right) is a legal term used to describe the rights that creators have over their literary and artistic works. Works covered by copyright range from books, music, paintings, sculpture, and films, to computer programs, databases, advertisements, maps, and technical drawings.

Once you are the right owner of a work, you can provide authorization for others to use or exploit your work. Such authorizations are commonly referred to as “licenses” and may or may not entail paying the rights owner. Naturally, it is always recommended to seek expert legal advice before negotiating a licensing agreement.

If you wish to license your work to users such as broadcasters, publishers, or even entertainment establishments (i.e. bars, nightclubs), joining a collective management organization (CMO) may be a good option. CMOs monitor uses of works on behalf of creators and publishers and are in charge of negotiating licenses and collecting remuneration. They are particularly common in the field of musical and literary works where there may be a large number of users of the same work and it would be difficult both for the owner of rights and the users to seek specific authorization for every single use and to monitor them.

Works published online whether on a web page or on a social media platform are generally protected by copyright and/or related rights so you generally need to obtain permission from the right owner before using it. But if a work is in the public domain – when the period of copyright protection expires – then it can be used freely. But make sure there are no other rights associated with the work. For example, the Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is in the public domain, but if you find a photograph of it online, the photographer who took that picture may have rights in that photo so you will need to contact the photographer to get permission to use it.

If you are running a small business and want to download and use a sound recording, or any other work protected by copyright, in for example, a marketing campaign, you will need to obtain authorization from the right holder(s).

Some websites are covered by a general license that outlines the terms under which creative works featured on it may be used. The only other circumstances in which you are not required to obtain permission to use a work are if its use falls under an exception or limitation to copyright law, for example, for the purposes of a quotation, news reporting or teaching.

As a general rule, if there is any doubt about whether or not there are rights associated with a work that you want to use, err on the side of caution and take steps to get permission to use it.

In general, it is unlikely that titles of songs meet the required levels of creativity and originality to qualify for copyright protection. On the other hand, titles, logos or slogans often qualify for protection as trademarks.

Any original content – e.g. text, artwork, photographs, video clips – that you have created and posted on your website may be protected by copyright. Check the website of your national copyright office to see if there are any specific procedures that allow you to voluntarily register your website.

Copyright law does not protect domain names. The rules governing the use and/or abuse of domain names are established and governed by the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center is a leading provider of dispute resolution services under ICANN’s Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP).

Computer programs and other types of software, including mobile apps (like WhatsApp or Candy Crush), are protected as literary works for copyright purposes. As such, they are protected automatically as soon as they are created and do not need to be formally registered. In some countries, however, the procedures for the voluntary registration of software may differ from those for other types of creative works.

The 140 character limit to a Twitter post means that it is unlikely that a tweet will reach the level of creativity required for it to qualify for copyright protection; however exceptions are possible. Also bear in mind that any pictures included in your tweets may also be copyright protected.

Right holders use a range of digital technologies to protect their works against infringement. These technologies safeguard against any unauthorized modification of a work, they can limit the number of copies that can be made of a work and the devices on which it can be enjoyed. According to international law, it is illegal to remove, change, or circumvent DRM protection of a work.

As an author, you may want to make your works available to others by sharing them online while retaining your rights in them. As a sign of this, you can simply affix the symbol, ©, alongside your name and the year in which the work was created.

You may also wish to include a “Terms of Use” section on your website outlining how your work may be used. For example, you may allow visitors to print a copy of your poems or drawings for their personal use, but may prohibit the sale of these works without your approval.

Whenever you upload new, original material onto your website, be sure to print out a copy with the relevant date for your records, in the event you need to prove that you were the first person to upload the information online.

When you sign up to use a social media or other digital platform, you are bound its “Terms and Conditions” of use. This often involves you giving the platform or service a non-exclusive license to use your content, even if you still retain rights over the content you post. In other words, depending on their concrete terms, platforms may have the right to use the content you generate or post. See for example, the Terms and Conditions governing the use of Facebook (Article 2) or YouTube (Article 6C).