Is It Legal to Use Any Piece of Music, Image, or Article for my Website?

And Other Questions on Copyright for Webmasters

Is It Legal to Use Any Piece of Music, Image, or Article for my Website? And Other Questions on Copyright Relevant to Webmasters

by Christopher Heng,

I sometimes get new webmasters asking me if it is legal for them to place a piece of music, picture, photo, or even article that they find on the Internet onto their site when they cannot find a copyright notice on the source website. That is, they want to know that if there is no copyright notice, whether they can assume that the work is in the public domain.

Important Disclaimer

I am not a lawyer, so this page does not constitute legal advice or anything even remotely close. I merely have a basic working knowledge sufficient for me to publish my websites. I depend on real lawyers for anything serious. If you're asking this as an idle query, just to get a layman's interpretation, then that's fine. However, if you are facing some legal problems, such as if you are trying to avoid lawsuits or are already facing a potential lawsuit, please do the sensible thing and consult a real lawyer.

This article is also not comprehensive in its coverage. In fact, it omits a whole lot of information, information that may be directly pertinent to you. I may also be completely or partially wrong in my interpretation of the law.

Okay, end of disclaimer and back to the article. I had to state the above, because I really am not a lawyer, and I don't want anyone having the wrong impression about this article's authority.

The Berne Convention

Under the Berne Convention, a copyright notice is optional on all works. The Berne Convention, for those who don't know, is an international agreement dealing with copyright matters. The convention is adhered to by all its signatories, which, at the time this was written, include some 176 nations, including the US and the UK. Under this convention, a work is automatically copyrighted when it is created, whether or not the copyright is asserted or declared.

In other words, the moment someone creates an original artistic work, whether it is an article, blog post, music composition, picture, computer program, film, or whatever, the work is immediately regarded as having been copyrighted whether or not the author writes a copyright notice anywhere. The copyright notice is optional. Even if it's not present, the person who created the work owns the rights to the work.

So the short answer to the question is: if you see a nice piece of music, picture, computer program, video or article on a site, you can safely assume that it is copyrighted. If you feel strongly that you have to use it on your site, you will have to write to the copyright owner to ask for a licence (or "license" if you use a different variant of English). In the event that they agree, you may have to pay royalties for the use.

There are certain exceptions of course. It is my understanding (which may be wrong) that in the US, works published by the US government are automatically placed in the public domain, that is, they are not copyrighted. This doesn't seem to be the case in all countries, so if you want to reuse materials from a government website, make sure you find out from a real legal expert. In any case, I personally feel that it is best to always ask for permission before reproducing anything, even from a US government website. (You don't want the weight of the entire US government's legal department descending on you, do you?)

Another word of caution: just because a site says something is in the "public domain" (ie, not copyrighted) doesn't necessarily mean it is. I have seen computer software which the authors claim they have placed "in the public domain". However, in the very next sentence they place some restrictions on the use and distribution of the program such as to forbid you from removing their names from the documentation, or something like that. In such a case, you'll probably be right to assume that the program is actually not in the public domain, in spite of what the author says, but is copyrighted with certain of the author's rights reserved.

Miscellaneous Questions on Copyright

Besides the above question, I've also been asked the following on copyright matters. Once again, remember my disclaimer above.


Don't put yourself and your site in danger of lawsuits and other problems. As webmasters, you have enough issues to contend with, just maintaining your site and getting visitors, without inviting legal hassles. Don't publish someone else's MIDI or MP3 file, scenic photo, article or other work just because you didn't see a copyright notice. Make sure everything on your site is either original or properly licensed.

Copyright © 2008-2020 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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