printer-friendly version

Art and the Internet

A common question I get asked is about using stuff that's on the internet. Many people assume that because something is posted on the internet that it's perfectly OK to grab it and use it anyway they want. I suppose one reason this idea is so pervasive is that it is so easy to point, click and save images and text off of a website. If it's that easy it must be legal, right?

Well, no. Just because something appears on the internet it doesn't necessarily follow that it's up for grabs. Copyright law, by which a creator owns a bunch of rights to a creative work as soon as the work is created, applies to cyberspace every bit as much as to the physical world. To be sure, the nature of digital media makes applying copyright law much more difficult, because digital works can be perfectly and infinitely reproduced, published, altered, and transmitted in the blink of an eye. But the law is still the law.

Now this doesn't mean you should never copy stuff off the web. Feel free to cut and paste images and text to your heart's content for your own amusement. Save things for later reference, send things to friends, use images for a screen saver. You can probably even get away with dressing up your MySpace page or blog with appropriated works, but there's a chance that you may get a notice from a copyright owner that your use is unauthorized, in which case you should quickly take down the offending item, unless you are commenting on or critiquing the work you've taken. I've got a blog for my radio show that I routinely dress up with images I've found on the web. My use is so benign I can't imagine anybody's feathers would get ruffled. But you never know.

Note here I'm not talking about music and movies. As a couple dozen of my clients will sheepishly tell you, the big record companies and movie studios take a dim view of people downloading their offerings, even for "personal use." If you are interested in getting music and video from the web, make sure that what you're downloading is with the blessing of the artist or media company that owns the work. It's pretty easy to figure out what's legit and what isn't. But be careful!

Where the line tends to be is when people use works grabbed off the web for purposes which one would reasonably expect to pay a licensing fee for. If you use things you've nicked off the web for a commercial or institutional venture, you'll need the permission of the copyright holder. And no, it doesn't matter that you're using the material for a not-for-profit organization! Copyright laws apply to not-for-profits, too. And no, giving attribution to the creator doesn't help things, either. That only demonstrates that you know the identity of the person you're ripping off!

Of course, if you want to use works on the internet that you know are in the public domain, knock yourself out! That's what the public domain is for.

How about the other side of the coin? You're a creator and want to use the internet as a way to promote or disseminate your works? What to do to keep from having your works pilfered?

First, come to grips with the fact that whatever you put up on the web can be cut and pasted, and if that bothers you, don't post stuff on the web. But keep in mind that the most perfect way to protect your works is to make sure that nobody ever sees it. Which is a tad self-defeating, isn't it?

Here's a real-world example. Six years ago, the first Napster epidemic hit, and music was being traded en masse over the internet for the first time, and nobody was getting paid. I downloaded the program and immediately looked to see if my old rock and roll band's music was being distributed over Napster for free. My first thought had been that I would be looking at raw theft, the equivalent of somebody reaching into my pocket and taking money from me and my bandmates. Then, as the program was searching for my band's songs, I had another and even more disturbing thought. How was I going to feel if my band's songs weren't being traded for free over the internet? How much would that suck? Just then, the search revealed that there we were on Napster, our songs were getting moved around, downloaded, and we weren't getting paid. And it really didn't bother me too much. Frankly, I thought it was pretty cool.

There are things you can do to protect your works online, at least to some degree. You should seriously consider registering works you post online with the Copyright Office. This gives you added protection and added ammunition should you find someone infringing your works. (You can get info on how to do this at Whether you register or not, you should always place a copyright notice (the (c), your name and the year you created the work) on every webpage on which you have things posted that you would like to protect. I've even seen artists post clever little messages on their websites that their works are posted on the web for people to enjoy and to promote the artist, and not for people to cut, paste, and reuse.

For images, you also can put "watermarks" on your works, a distinguishing translucent symbol across the image that would diminish the work's attractiveness to a third person. You also could put a copyright notice directly on the image.

The problem, of course, is that by doing these things you are defacing your images, which can be kind of a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot solution. A secondary problem is that these marks can generally be removed fairly readily by anybody with a cursory ability with a digital touch-up program like PhotoShop. It should be noted, though, that the removal of a copyright notice from a digital work is a separate copyright offense, above and beyond a claim for copyright infringement. So if you can put a copyright notice on the work discreetly and without doing great violence to your work, do it.

Another thing you can do with images is to reproduce them in the minimum resolution necessary for people to view your work. If your work can create the desired impression with a small-sized image, you can probably get away with a fairly low-resolution picture. This will limit the utility of the image to others, because when enlarged the image with be a garbled bunch of pixels. Again, this measure compromises you ability to show your work, but it is an effective way to keep poachers at bay.

Finally, I'm aware that there are some technical ways that can make it difficult to grab images off of your website. One scheme involves using java applets and frames (and I have to admit that I'm not really sure what these things are!) that prevents cutting and pasting. Apparently, however, the images can still be readily copied by using the "screen shot" function of Windows. So it sounds like much ado about nothing.

There will never be a foolproof way of protecting your works on the web. As soon as somebody comes up with a new copy-protect technology, some kid in a dorm room at Stanford or MIT is going to come up with a clever hack-around. And for all sorts of reasons, this is the way it should be.

So I'd suggest posting things on the web freely, but with your eyes open, and using the precautions I've outlined above, as appropriate. If you see somebody using your works in ways you don't like, let them know. But be ready for the reality of the internet, that stuff is going to get copied and reused. Especially if it's any good!

© 2002 Paul C. Rapp
This article originally appeared in The Artful Mind, and is intended to provide the reader with an awareness of copyright law and not legal advice.