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.
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 yourself a favour 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.
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 160+ 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" in US 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" doesn't necessarily mean it is. I have seen computer programs where the authors claim they have placed "in the public domain". However, in the very next sentence the authors 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.
Besides the above question, I've also been asked the following on copyright matters. Once again, remember my disclaimer above.
The duration of a copyright seems to vary from country to country, depending on the type of work. Under the Berne Convention, things like articles and literary works have copyrights lasting the life of the author plus an additional 50 years. I'm not really sure about other types of work, but I seem to recall reading about how the US wants to extend (or has extended) the copyright for films to 95 years. (Something to do with Mickey Mouse's copyright expiring, if I remember correctly.) Consult a true legal beagle for this if it's important to you.
Since the copyright of your articles lasts your entire life plus another 50 years, it stands to reason that you will not need to renew it. In any case, it may be a bit difficult for you to do so after lying 50 years in the grave.
Depending on your country, a copyright notice can be simply the word "Copyright" or the copyright symbol "©", followed by the year in which your work was first published, and then by the name of the copyright owner. Some countries, if not all, also allow the abbreviation "Copr". For example, all of the following are acceptable:
The year is simply the date the work is first published. If you modified your work in subsequent years, you can put those additional years in your notice.
Don't worry: you don't have to hurry to add a new year to your copyright date at the turn of every year, the way I see some sites do. If your work is copyrighted in 2008, it will still be copyrighted in 2009 and so on, till 50 years after your death. Appending the additional years won't extend the copyright for your articles (unless it somehow prolongs your life), so only include additional years if you have actually made changes to your work.
As you may have surmised, registration is not needed for your work to be copyrighted. Having said that, some countries (not all) provide a way for you to register with a national registry on payment of a fee. The actual procedure for this varies from country to country, so it's not possible for me to write a step-by-step guide that applies to everyone in the world. You'll just have to find the correct government agency for your country (if any even exists), and read up on their procedure.
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.
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