Last time around, this column looked at the importance of hyperlinks and all the different ways they can be used. Well, almost all the different ways: Not mentioned was linking to copyright information, a topic that seems appropriate for this issue of JEP.

By now, everybody who's involved in publishing on the Web is accustomed to sticking a copyright notice on at least the opening page of his or her site. Typically, it's no more than the cursory "Copyright 1999, Big Publisher Inc."

While such a line suggests that the site's contents are not free for the picking, it falls short of being truly helpful. As Internet law has evolved, it's hard enough for publishers to keep track of what's legal and what isn't. Therefore, it hardly seems reasonable to expect Web users to know the intricacies of the law.

To that end, many publishers link their copyright lines to pages that explain their expectations. Even though most of those expectations seem obvious to publishers, they may be surprising to the average Web surfer. The guidelines typically cover linking, copying, archiving, distributing material over a network, modifying material, and republishing.


With hyperlinks at the heart of the Web, linking is the first copyright issue that springs to mind. It seems obvious that most publishers offer material on the Web in the hopes of attracting as many visitors as possible. Therefore, many sites actively encourage others to link to their sites. Even the Copyright Clearance Center Inc. tells its visitors:

CCC encourages and appreciates links in your own Web pages to CCC Online. Permission is expressly granted to any person who wishes to place a link in his or her own Web page to the CCC Online welcome page in its entirety. As a courtesy, if you link to, or include CCC Online in an index, please let us know.

With the exception of the well-known Shetland Times case of a few years ago (an interesting discussion of which appears on the site of Bitlaw: A Resource on Technology Law,) there's never been a debate about the legality of linking. But some Internet newcomers might not be aware of the protocols, so it's worth making the invitation explicit.

Copying on Paper

Many publishers set precise guidelines on what rights the visitor has to print material from their sites. Typically, the guideline is that the visitor may make one printout of an article and may not make further copies of that printout. Such guidelines may be essentially unenforceable for sites that make their content available at no charge. (In such a case, it's also unclear why a publisher would want to restrict copying.) But publishers who allow access to information only through subscription, or even those whose publications are supported by advertising, would seem to have a case against visitors who violate that guideline.

Archiving on Paper or Electronically

Some publishers supplement the previous guideline by restricting the viewer's electronic copying of material, too. For instance, First Monday succinctly directs its users that "You may save a local copy of the articles or print a copy for your personal use."

Different access models obviously require different schemes in this area, however. For example, Theory & Event, which is available to educational institutions by subscription, allows a wide range of archival activities:

Provided that the copyright header attached to the article is retained, libraries and registered campus network users may:

  • Download, save, and print articles for personal use.

  • Store articles for reserve use in either paper or electronic form.

  • Download, print, and distribute articles in multiple copies for classroom use as long as they are not sold for this or other commercial purposes.

  • Archive articles on paper or CD-ROM. Even if an electronic subscription to a journal is cancelled, institutions may continue to store articles from the previously-subscribed journal provided that access to the files on the library's fileserver is restricted to the single domain of the subscribed campus. Libraries, therefore, own the material from the electronic files to which they subscribe.

  • Download and save materials on a local domain fileserver in order to provide online access to their local community, provided that access to the files on the library's fileserver is restricted to the single domain of the subscribed campus.

  • Print out articles for hard copy inclusion in their serials collections.

  • Place unlimited articles on reserve, whether paper or electronic.

  • Provide for interlibrary loan, under CONTU guidelines, facsimile images that are exact representations of the print journal pages or of printouts from the electronic database. These may be distributed in paper, fax, or digital form.

  • Place selected listings and notices on the campus network to inform users of availability.

Distributing the Material Over a Network

Many online publishers are much stricter about distributing their material via a LAN or any other network. The Washington Post, for instance, warns that "... you may not distribute any part of this service over any network, including a local area network ...." Again, though, this may be hard to enforce for a site that makes its content freely available.

Modifying the Material

Additionally, many publishers offer explicit prohibitions against modifying content from a site (with the implicit assumption that the modified content would then be passed on by the user). The Copyright Clearance Center Inc., for instance, warns, "You may not modify the information found in CCC Online without the express permission of the Copyright Clearance Center."


Finally, publishers typically include warnings that visitors cannot resell content from their sites. Doing so is obviously theft, but many Web surfers believe that anything they find online is theirs for the taking. Further, many visitors could probably benefit from being told that it also is not appropriate to link to part of a site, such as an image, which then appears on the visitor's own page. Not surprisingly, one of the strictest Web publishers on this point is Playboy. With countless college students appropriating images of Playboy Playmates for use on their personal sites, Playboy has cracked down on offenders and posts a strong warning on its site:

To reproduce material from Playboy that you've seen on our Web sites, you'll need permission from us. We aren't very likely to give permission to reproduce our material on your web page or CD-ROM. We'd rather people come to Playboy Web sites to look at the Playmates and read the interviews and laugh at the cartoons. But there are exceptions to every rule. We have granted permission to many teachers to use Playboy as course material. Serious inquiries only.

It also may be worth notifying users that it is improper to frame content from a site: That is, to set up a site with frames, one of which includes a document from another site. Such activity led to legal action against a few years back, after the site presented visitors the chance to view stories from major newspapers in a manner that blocked the advertising from those originating sites. TotalNews had argued that it was helping the sites it featured, by sending visitors to their pages. But in doing so, critics claim, the "parasite" obscured the advertising on the source pages, which allowed it to attract advertising without producing any original content. (For more on that story, see "TotalNews Pokes a Stick at Big Media Again," Wired News, 12 June 1997.)

An Ounce of Prevention

In many cases, improper use of materials found on the Web is more likely the result of lack of visitor knowledge than outright malicious intent. Taking the time to spell out expectations of how visitors use content can go a long way towards staving off transgressions and can save publishers much time and effort in tracking down and dealing with offenders.

Thom Lieb is an associate professor of journalism and new media at Towson University in Baltimore. Among his courses is Writing for the Web. He is the author of Editing for Clear Communication and has written and edited for magazines, newspapers, newsletters and online publication. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Communication from the University of Maryland at College Park and a master's of science in Magazine Journalism from Syracuse University. You may contact him by e-mail at

Links from this article

Copyright Clearance Center Inc. copyright statement (

Bitlaw: A Resource on Technology Law — Linking and Liability (

First Monday copyright statement (

Theory & Event publisher's statement (

The Washington Post (

Playboy copyright statement ( (

"TotalNews Pokes a Stick at Big Media Again," Wired News, 12 June 1997. (