Think before copying and pasting
Copyright laws apply to material found online

By Katherine Michalets - Freeman Staff

April 16, 2016

WAUKESHA - We’ve all been there. We find an interesting article posted online and we want to comment on it and share it for the world to see.

But be careful, said Bruce Boyden, an assistant professor at Marquette Law School who specializes in copyright law.

“In general, any sort of creative content including news articles or online articles is copyrighted from the moment it’s created,” Boyden said.

According to the Cornell University Law School website, “the owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, license, and to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work. The exclusive rights of the copyright owner are subject to limitation by the doctrine of ‘fair use.’” Fair use of copyrighted work includes for such purposes as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research.

Even then, it can only be a shortened version.

“Generally (a person is) only permitted to take as much of someone else’s work as is needed in order to engage in some form of protected use,” Boyden said.

Fair use, Boyden said, can include copying a paragraph from a newspaper to share with comment on a person’s own blog. Just because an item is posted online and is not protected by a password doesn’t mean it’s available for use by other people for their own use, Boyden said.

Even if it’s on a public website, it’s protected.

According to the Cornell University Law School article, “To determine whether or not a particular use qualifies as fair use, courts apply a multi-factor balancing test.”

One of those factors, Boyden said, is if it’s being used by another party to comment. The person who is sharing the content can be doing so in a way with the intent to compete, he said. Fair use isn’t always easy to define, Boyden said, and is determined on a case-by-case basis by a court.

Boyden recommends that if someone wants to be cautious, he should post a link to the original source.

“That would be a very safe way to direct people to the original content,” he said.

Overall, Boyden said there is a lot of misunderstanding of copyrighted material among individuals. Even professionals get confused about the rules and will take photographs not copyrighted by them and use them on their websites, violating the copyright law. Boyden said he has heard from many aggravated professional photographers.

Often it can be a difficult line for content creators to walk, Boyden said. If they create a payment plan for content, it can hinder people from viewing the content and drive people away, but if people leave their content online and unprotected it can get ripped off, he said.

“There has been a pretty steady amount of litigation over online infringement since the late ’90s,” Boyden said.

In the past five to 10 years, Boyden said more attorneys have been going after the intermediaries such as Internet service providers to enforce the rules.

“I would say, that if your purpose is to add something new and only take what you need, adding only criticism or parody, then you have fair use rights,” Boyden said.

And even if a person gets a news article from a blog that wrongfully shared a news article, that person is still liable.

Now that everyone has a computer and access to content, Boyden said copyright law is something everyone has to worry about. Eventually, he said, the law will adapt.

Need to know

If a person is commenting upon or critiquing a copyrighted work, fair use principles apply that allow a person to reproduce some of the original work. Some examples of commentary and criticism include: Quoting a few lines from a Bob Dylan song in a music review Summarizing and quoting from a medical article on prostate cancer in a news report Copying a few paragraphs from a news article for use by a teacher or student in a lesson, or Copying a portion of a Sports Illustrated magazine article for use in a related court case. The underlying rationale of this rule is that the public reaps benefits from your review, which is enhanced by including some of the copyrighted material.

Source: Stanford University Libraries,