If It’s on the Web, It’s Free–FALSE

Intelligent, informed, morally upright people have told me that anything on the web is public domain. They feel free to repost it, reprint it, resell it or re-use it in any way they wish without permission. Music, images, text–it’s all fair game.

Not so. The copyright laws apply to whatever is on the web in the same way they apply to whatever is in a newspaper, magazine, book, TV broadcast, radio or any other media. If it’s not fair use or if free use is not explicitly stated (as with something like wikicommons and wikimedia) then permission is required from the copyright owner. Here’s a couple more myths.



Crediting-the-Source Myth:
I gave credit to the original work, so I don’t need permission. Also false. Giving credit doesn’t mean your usage falls within the bounds of fair use.

The No-Copyright-Notice Myth:
If there’s no copyright notice, it’s not copyrighted. False again. The copyright law was revised to state that a work is copyrighted from the moment of creation even if there is no copyright notice. The copyright notice and registering it with the US copyright office do not confer copyright. It is merely a way to document the date of a work’s creation which can be of help if a question of plagiarism or copyright infringement arises. You can find a helpful list of other copyright myths here.

Yes, there are some who argue this is all wrong. The web should be free. It’s good for society and good for the copyright owner, ultimately, in spreading word. And some entrepreneurs follow this strategy–giving away content on the web as a sales tool for acquiring speaking engagements, consulting work or concert bookings. And that’s just fine. But it doesn’t change the reality that the material is copyrighted.

Some Christians argue that the gospel is free and so anything promoting Christianity should be free. Probably most of these people still pay their pastors and other church staff, however. The apostle Paul wrote, “The worker deserves his wages.” While there has been a huge emphasis on wiki sites, it can discourage some creativity. The church and society benefit when writers, software developers and artists know they can take the time needed to create because they will be fairly compensated. While Christians in particular would never think of pilfering their neighbor’s garden without asking, the parallel to taking their neighbor’s writing without asking should be clear.

What we can know is this: If it’s on the web, someone created it.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

6 thoughts on “If It’s on the Web, It’s Free–FALSE”

  1. The real issue behind copyright is ownership and power and, ultimately, financial benefit. What gets me is that some publishers have taken works previously produced in the public domain, changed a word or two, put out a new edition under their copyright, the whole aim being one of profitability. I think of some of Spurgeon’s devotional works and have sought to find the alterations that are used to justify the copyrights, a daunting task to say the least.

  2. A great reminder for us all. I am particularly amazed when people have no compunction about “borrowing” material that clearly includes a copyright symbol!

  3. Dr James–while bringing out of print books back into print can be a great service, doing what you’re talking about is definitely questionable ethical territory.

  4. What is gone with the copyright mess of today is freedom, and that was precisely the intention of those behind the scenes who manipulated the law to bring the present situation to pass. Things are only going to get worse now with the impantation of devices so that our health can be checked and provided for.. What a crock! The real aim is control of people; the rulers behind the scenes, the Captains and the Kings (cf. Taylor Caldwell’s novel). With the hiding of the original 13th Amendment (adopted by the requisite number of states around 1824-28 and then deliberatedly left out of the printing of the Constitution, circa the 1850s (though still found in some history books from the 1820s and 30s, if they can be found), the reign of the terror of lawyers began.

  5. http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/12634

    Andy, did you see the Nov 2, ebook discussion on “Charlie Rose”? Jonathan Safran Foer mentioned something about amazon dropping one of his ebooks to either an extremely cheap or incredibly free price. Can amazon do that without the publisher’s permission? Can they do that on traditional books?

  6. The quick answer, yes. If you buy a book from a publisher for say $20, you can sell it for $1 or $10 or give it away. It is yours to do with as you wish since you own it. Same is true for corporations. As long as Amazon pays the publisher, they can do whatever they want with it. And if they want to take a loss to gain marketshare, that is their choice–and it’s a strategy Amazon has used very successfully over the years. By law, a publisher cannot restrict them. It is called restraint of trade.

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