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Common Questions (with answers)

Following are common questions most frequently asked about copyright and how it is applied to the Internet. If you don't find the answer to your question here, please send contact VCU's DMCA Agent (  For more information concerning copyright and intellectual property, including a very good video on the subject, visit the National Cyber Education Project Materials page hosted by the University of Richmond's School of Law Intellectual Property Institute. Also, for more information on the copyright of electronic media visit the following websites:

Please Note: This page was not prepared by an attorney and should not be considered legal advice.

What is a copyright? 

Federal law reserves to the copyright holder the exclusive right to copy, to prepare derivative works, and to distribute by sale or otherwise, the copyrighted work.

How do I obtain a copyright?

A copyright subsists from the time the work is fixed in any tangible medium of expression. Thus, when you lift your pen from the paper, what you wrote is copyrighted. What you write on your computer is copyrighted when you save it to the magnetic media (i.e. hard disk, a floppy disk, tape, etc.).

Who owns a copyright? 

The copyright immediately becomes the property of the author who created it, or, in the case of works made for hire (e.g., made within the scope of your employment), of the employer. VCU's Intellectual Properties Policy specifies when the University owns the copyright on a work by a member of the VCU community. The owner may transfer title by contract or gift, or may license another to copy, or sell copies in specified circumstances.

How can I protect my copyright? 

The best protection for a copyright results from warning people that a work is copyrighted, registering the copyright, and vigorously pursuing those thought to be infringing on a copyright in the courts if necessary. However, this aggressive approach is seldom worth the effort and expense unless a work has commercial value. For web purposes, it is usually adequate to warn people that the work is copyrighted and to follow up any infringement you detect.

How can I tell the world my work is copyrighted? 

You can warn people that your work is copyrighted by attaching the word "copyright" or the international symbol "©" (which can be approximated thus:"(C)"), the date of first publication, and the name of the copyright holder. For example, if it is your work, "Copyright 1997 by John Q. Public", or if it is a work done in your role as university employee, "© 1997 Virginia Commonwealth University". The warning is not legally necessary to maintain your copyright protection, but if you use it, no one can claim they thought the work was in the public domain.

What is the "Public Domain"? 

The Public Domain is that group of works for which no copyright exists. The three most common ways that a work enters the public domain are by expiration of the copyright, formal dedication to the public domain by the copyright owner, and significant failure to follow up on known infringement. If you wish material you publish on the web to go into the public domain, you can always add either, "Dedicated to the public domain," or, "No copyright asserted."

How can I follow up on infringement of my works on the web? 

Most people who inadvertently use your copyrighted material in their web pages will remove it, or give proper attribution, on request. If an individual is uncooperative, contact the internet service provider, or ISP, hosting the pages to submit a complaint.

What use may I make of digital media  I find on the web?

The application of copyright law on the web can be confusing. However, a few things are pretty clear.

  • Assume it is copyrighted unless you know it is not.
  • You may use it if you have the copyright owner's permission; an e-mail request and answer should suffice.
  • You may use a link that jumps to someone else's copyrighted page, so long as you do not leave the impression that it is your work. 
  • You may not make a link that brings someone else's copyrighted work into your page in a way that makes it appear to be your work. Images, or contents in frames, are typical circumstances where this error can be made. However, you should not just "inline" it (just include it as an tag) and follow it with your own information, so it looks like it is your own work.
  • Do not use a business's trademark or logo as a link on your page unless you have their explicit permission to do so.  Even then, make sure you use the appropriate symbol to indicate the mark is registered (®) or that trademark rights are claimed in it (™).

There is no (C) on an image; does that mean I can use it? 

Not necessarily. Under the law, it is not necessary to inform the public that a work is copyrighted. Use common sense. To be safe, seek the creator; the first step is an e-mail to the webmaster of the page on which you found it. If you use something that you believe in good faith is in the public domain, and someone tells you that you are infringing their copyright, IMMEDIATELY remove it from your page. Then you may be able to negotiate permission to use it if your purpose is educational, or otherwise non-commercial.

Where can I find out more about copyrights? 

The U.S. Copyright Office  has good general discussions about copyright, including one on fair use which was written with print media, rather than the worldwide web, in mind. Brad Templeton's "10 Big Myths about copyright explained" is also worth a good look.

What about "Educational Fair Use"? 

In application of copyright laws to printed media, there has generally been exceptions applied of "fair use" which is defined as limited reproduction of portions of copyrighted materials for instructional use. There are serious questions as to whether this applies to Internet (Web) publications. Educational fair use is limited to distribution of materials in a classroom, broadcast of materials to a classroom, or distribution of materials to handicapped students who can not get to a classroom. Since there is no legal definition of an Internet classroom, you will be taking a chance if you try to apply "fair use" to the Internet. The VCU Libraries has additional information concerning "fair use" available on their site.

This article was updated: 09/7/2016