The great thing about the Internet is that there is an abundance of information available at our fingertips. We have global access to anything and everything. With all this information floating around out there in cyberspace it is easy to forget about basic copyright law. In fact, the Internet has created a significant threat to copyright protection.
Why is the Internet such a threat? There is a common misconception that if something doesn’t have the standard copyright notification, then it isn’t copyrighted. That’s not the case. Copyright attaches the minute an original work is fixed in a tangible medium. So don’t be lured into a false sense of security if you don’t see the copyright notice. For example, copying a Tweet and using it as your original words, is technically plagiarism — a copyright violation.
There are significant costs associated with violating someone’s copyright. Penalties for infringement range from a fine of $200 for a minor infraction to hundreds of thousands for a willful violation. And in some cases copyright violations can bring about felony criminal charges.
So if you decide to copy and paste content on your blog, web site or social media forum as your own creation, remember you’re committing plagiarism. However, it’s not always black and white — there are a few exceptions. Sometimes you may use copyrighted material under the “fair use” doctrine. Fair use may exist for the purpose of a critical review, to report news, for teaching or research. But if you use material in such a way, you should limit the amount of content and make sure you attribute it to its original source. Also, you don’t want to use it in such a way as to damage the commercial value of the original work. For example, people have asked for permission to use excerpts from my books. As long as they provide clear attribution, that is not an infringement of my copyright. However, if they published the entire book, then that would harm my ability to sell the books. After all, who would want to pay for something they can get somewhere else for free.
The other reason the Internet is such a threat to copyright protection is the sheer volume of material out there. Someone may be passing off your work as their own and you’ll never find out. Personally, I use the various Internet search engines to help me identify plagiarism. I search for my name, easily identifiable titles and/or phrases to see what pops up. Sometimes this can be fun because I’ve found articles written by me that have been translated into other languages. In those cases, I have to hope they have been translated correctly.
Finally, some works are considered to be in the public domain and are not protected by copyright. This material can be freely published, copied or adapted by anyone. For example, government generated content and objective facts generally fall under this exception.
Your best bet if you are in doubt about something you want to use is to simply ask the author for permission and/or make clear attribution.