Tip Sheets

Using the Internet

Internet Explorer - Copyright guidelines

Information published on the Web is still the intellectual property of the person or organization that created it. It is covered by the same copyright laws as information published in a book or any other media.

Copyright law aims to protect the rights of creators of intellectual property. The principle is that if a person or organization has invested creative and financial resources to create a ‘work', then they have the right to benefit from the work (e.g. by charging people for the use of the work). We say that they have copyright over their work. This means they have the right to decide who can copy it in whole or in part, and on what conditions they may copy it.

Copyright law seeks to protect the creators of intellectual ‘works' from others who might want to take their ‘work' and benefit from it unfairly.

Fair use

Copyright law generally makes it illegal to copy a work without permission of the copyright holder. Illegally copying is seen as theft of other people's intellectual property. This is serious stuff. In practice, however, there is a system that permits some copying. This is called the doctrine of ‘fair use'. It is important to understand what can legally be copied and how this material can be used.

Here are some forms of copying that have been interpreted by courts as being ‘fair use' of intellectual property:

  • Purpose and character of use. Generally if the purpose is educational it is considered ‘fair use' EXCEPT where the user is making some commercial gain. For example, using extracts in your classroom material is OK but you cannot sell materials or gain financially in any way. Be careful though, copying whole articles or pages and putting them into course readers is NOT seen as fair use. A court would likely rule that this copying has been done simply to avoid paying for the material – thus injuring the copyright holder and an indirect commercial gain for the user. Similarly, provided there is no commercial gain, it is OK to use material for criticism, parody (to make fun of it) , comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research
  • Type of work. Generally factual information like statistics etc. is not given the same degree of protection as a ‘creative work'.
  • Amount used. How much is too much? Clearly copying whole works without permission is not ‘fair use'. In 1976 there was an ‘Agreement on Guidelines for Classroom Copying' in America which allowed copying of no more than 1000 words of any work by not-for-profit educational institutions. Many countries have adopted these guidelines.
  • Impact on the market. It is not fair use to copy in order to ‘substitute for the purchase of a work'. If the work has been published for the same purpose that you are using it (for example, if you copy a whole or part of a textbook or Web resource, to avoid buying it) you may be infringing copyright because you are impacting on the market for which the work was published.

In any case, you should always include a notice acknowledging the source of material that you copy. If you do not do this, even if your copying meets these criteria, it will not be seen as ‘fair use'.