Digital Copyright 101

Back in the early part of this century, when I was studying copyright law as part of a music business degree program at a university in the Midwest, I was required to know the five exclusive rights every copyright owner is guaranteed under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

These days, there are actually 6 exclusive rights guaranteed to copyright owners.  The new right covers – you guessed it – digital media rights.  And just as a bit taboo for professional songwriter to steal music from the internet, content providers should take care not to misuse digital media sources.

Copyright protection for digital media is typically no different than protection for analogue media.  You should assume that all content online is copyright protected unless otherwise stated (Creative Commons, for example). In the U.S., copyrights are good for 70 years after the death of the author of the work.  If you consider that very often digital content has literary, audiovisual, musical and graphical aspects, you could easily see how the copyright issue can get pretty complicated pretty quickly.

Everybody’s Rights

Under Section 106, “Exclusive rights in copyrighted works” of the law, copyright owners’ right to do the following are protected:

  • to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies
  • to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work
  • to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  • in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
  • in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
  • in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Walking the Fine Line

In general, it’s always best to ask for permission.  If you are using content in any one of the above ways, you are going to need permission unless the author / copyright owner indicates otherwise. When I pull content from other sites, I request of the editor “Permission to Re-post” – a letter asking for permission to copy/share the content on their site as it is.  Usually, there aren’t very many problems.  Sometimes, editors allow you to post the first paragraph then require a back link to read the rest of the content.

If you’re pulling a few quotes (and “few” is highly subjective), you may not need permission as long as you cite your sources.  ALWAYS cite your sources.  It builds your credibility and protects your integrity.  Fine arts and other la-di-dah content may qualify for protection under the moral rights aspect of the copyright law.  In the U.S., only fine art qualifies for moral rights protection, but in other countries, the law could reasonably cover a grander scale of content.  With moral rights, modifying a piece of work in any way (including digitization) could constitute a violation.

A Few Exceptions

Press Releases do not require permission to re-post. I use to surf for news.  Sometimes press releases on certain topics will show up in my Google Alerts. If you go to, you could search press releases by subject and relevant releases will be listed with the most recent releases first.'s search feature's search feature is one site I know of that has all posts licensed under Creative Commons. Creative Commons is a license that allows you to freely share your work by choosing which elements of the copyright law you’re enforcing and which you’re waiving.

Creative Commons licenses

Types of Creative Commons licenses

For images, there are subscription services like Shutterstock and Dreamstime that allow you to license images for a low price.  Dreamstime even has a massive selection of free images.  You may want to credit the image owner if you decide to use one of the free images though.

News content can, of course, be researched and articles written based on the information you find. But copying anything word for word was wrong in high school and it’s wrong now.

That sums it up for the basics in digital copyright.  Play fair.

What are your thoughts on digital copyright laws? Post in the comments below.

Image by Rolffimages

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