Definition of copyright – does copyright of images still apply to the Internet?

Copyright symbol
Copyright symbol. Source: Pixabay.
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The article discusses more than the definition of copyright. A definition is a summary and more than that is appropriate in this instance. This article relates primarily to internet works; words and images.

Over the course of the development of the Internet, the concept of copyright with respect to images has changed in my view. Google is the prime motivator in this change. They do not want the ‘chilling effect’ (as they describe it) of copyright laws. They want the Internet to expand which is entirely understandable in order to increase their profits. A strict application of copyright law in respect of, for example, cat photographs (my area of operation) is very stifling to the creation of new content. More content means more adverts leading to more income for Google under their excellent Adsense program. I support Google in this objective (if my assessment is correct 🤞).

Big businesses such as Pinterest has severely undermined the concept of copyright in respect of photographs and other images. I believe that copyright no longer exists on the Internet in practical terms. It’s the way the companies that run the Internet want it. It’s too difficult to enforce copyright on the Internet because it knows no boundaries. I like this development.

Copyright law is different from country to country but the Internet is not bounded by borders. It is universal and worldwide. I would argue that a new form of copyright law has been created informally by the Internet which basically states that there is no copyright on images.

People have given up enforcing copyright on the Internet for practical reasons and to serve the objectives of the big players, as I call them, who run the Internet. There is no governing body which watches over the Internet. Perhaps there should be but they won’t be. The big players like a free for all and they don’t like restrictions. Copyright law is a form of restriction.

You could believe that Pinterest was created with the objective of breaking the concept of intellectual property rights with respect to images. It may have been created with the support of other big Internet companies with this purpose in mind.

Now for the boring bit.

Definition of Copyright — Summary

Copyright is a right enshrined in law that provides the owner of the right wide ranging but limited rights in respect of his/her work and allows him to dictate how his work is used. The limited rights are (a) right to make copies (b) authorize others to make copies (c) make derivative works (d) sell and market the work and perform the work.

In terms of allowed use by the copyright holder he can, at one extreme, retain all his rights. In the alternative he can allow limited use. The concept of “creative commons” falls into this category. And at the other end of the spectrum, he can allow unlimited use.

“Use” refers to copying the work, or making derivative works from the original unique work. The concept of copyright is a compromise and sometimes controversial. Some people argue that the laws stifle innovation. The law varies from country to country but a large number of countries have agreed to common rules under conventions.

Definition of Copyright — Video

Fair use

A defense against a claim for breach of copyright is fair use. It says that can reuse copyright-protected material under certain circumstances without getting the copyright owner’s permission. It is a flexible concept. Perhaps abused. For example, using a small version of an image in an educational article. The copyright holder would accept it.

Note: This is an embedded tweet. Sometimes they are deleted at source which stops them working on this site. If that has happened, I apologise but I have no control over it.

Fair use in copyright
Fair use in copyright. Image:

How it works for me in practice

I find copyright law a bit confusing in part because it has evolved and there are some differences from country to country. The argument I use is this: as the law is off-putting or looks muddled it is best to play safe. From a practical point of view, I observe these rules:

Update 2022: My attitude has changed because of the attitude of the big Internet players such as the social media businesses, Pinterest and Google. So, what I have said below needs to be viewed in this light.

  1. Assume all work is protected by copyright. Generally, all original work is automatically copyright protected. It doesn’t even need to have the copyright logo under it. Works can be registered but need not be to have protection. The vast majority of work is not registered. In order to make it clear that a photograph is protected by copyright I place this text on or under it: ©copyright Helmi Flick (as an example)
  2. Copyright registration is as I understand it useful for major original works and as evidence that the author owns copyright to it. “Poor Man’s Copyright” is a means of establishing ownership by sending it to oneself or sending it to your lawyer, for example.
  3. If you want to use something on the internet (a) ask the author or (b) check if its use is allowed under a creative commons license or (c) check to see if copyright has expired or (d) ask yourself whether it can be used under “fair use”.
  4. Fair use allows use of copyrighted material under certain circumstances. You will have to justify fair use by arguing the following (a) the purpose and character of the use (b) the nature of the copyrighted work (c) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole (d) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work (src: Wikipedia). Wikipedia authors argue fair use not infrequently.
  5. One argument is that the copy is of poor quality (I am referring here to an image). As a result, it cannot harm the rights of the author. Indeed, publishing copyrighted material can assist the holder of the copyright sometimes. Another argument is that its use is for charitable purposes.
  6. Copyright can expire over time. This is a quote from Wikipedia under their Wikipedia commons license: “In most of the world, the default length of copyright is the life of the author plus either 50 or 70 years. In the United States, the term for most existing works is a fixed number of years after the date of creation or publication. In some countries (
    for example, the United States and the United Kingdom), copyrights expire at the end of the calendar year in question.” At which point the work is in the public domain.

Definition of Copyright — Creative Commons

A lot of authors allow use of their work under creative commons. This is the author granting a certain type of license of use up front, which saves the bother of the user from having to ask. This is an important tool for internet workers. This should be checked as a matter of course. There is a website where a search can be done: There are many millions of images on Flickr for example that are usable under a creative commons license. There are 4 types of creative commons license.

The creative commons website allows you to build code that informs readers of the kind of license that you are allowing. Below is an example. This allows people to use this page under a license that limits use in one way only, namely to use the article “as is” and to attribute it to me, Michael. It is a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. It was built on this page:

Creative Commons LicenseDefinition of Copyright by Michael is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

All of Wikipedia is under a creative commons license. They call it Wikipedia Commons. However, it is always preferable to write original work. Why? Because simply duplicating work is rather pointless unless you wan to use a particularly complicated definition or reference that cannot be reworded without spoiling the meaning.

Creative Commons is a wonderfully useful tool. It allows people to share in a controlled way. Below is a copy from the Creative Commons site of the 4 licenses. This copy is allowed by them.

Definition of Copyright — Creative Commons License Conditions

Creators choose a set of conditions they wish to apply to their work.

Attribution Attribution

You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work — and derivative works based upon it — but only if they give credit the way you request.

Share Alike

You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work.

Noncommercial Noncommercial

You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work — and derivative works based upon it — but for noncommercial purposes only.

No Derivative Works No Derivative Works

You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.

These licenses can be mixed. See all the Flickr licenses on this page of Flickr:

Note: this is not comprehensive (obviously). Please check the law yourself. For the vast majority of internet users we don’t understand copyright law fully (at best) and we haven’t the means or time to achieve full understanding. The best course of action under these circumstances is caution. And remember Google will notice if you are simply copying other people’s material.

Definition of Copyright — Enforcement

Once again this relates to breaches of copyright (“copy vios” – copyright violations) on the internet. This is what I do:

  1. I track down the person who is in breach. (see below)
  2. I contact that person and ask politely and firmly that they remove the material (and ideally the code if it is an image) from their website. I allow a 10 day time limit and inform them of that.
  3. I also contact the website hosting company. You can do this on this website:
  4. Step 3 can prove particularly effective. I also mention in emails that I may contact Google under their own scheme: Digital Millennium Coyright Act if this is applicable.
  5. I find that the worse cases of copyright violations come from Blogger or blogging sites. Blogger is owned by Google so a warning of the Google route as a last step is generally useful and effective.

Definition of Copyright — Picture top right: This is in the public domain.

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