Everything online journalists need to protect their legal rights. This free resource culls from all Reporters Committee resources and includes exclusive content on digital media law issues.
Though copyright law has long protected writers from unwanted reproduction of their material, the Internet has made it simple to cut, paste and link with the click of a mouse. Lawsuits over shared headlines and links in recent years have driven this intensifying debate over the boundaries of the law. And no court has yet definitively set the limits.
“Copyright law is fundamentally the same,” said Michael Kwun, a senior intellectual property attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The courts are struggling now to apply it when the facts are different. But the purpose that [the law] is trying to accomplish and the values it is trying to support are the same.”
Many argue that links bring more viewers to the site, thus resulting in more revenue.
“I think a lot of the linking that is happening is entirely welcome,” Kwun said. “A lot of news sites out there recognize that linking creates traffic. They should welcome people coming to their Web site and reading material by whatever means.”
Dan Gillmor, who runs the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University and is a blogger and author, called website owners' fear of links taking away traffic “misguided.” From a business perspective, links will create more traffic for GateHouse.
But as a matter of social etiquette, he said, one company shouldn’t link to another that is adamantly opposed to it. Gillmor said he saw the issue more as a moral and social one, rather than a question of law. But there are legal concerns as well.
Courts have generally upheld the right of Web sites to link to other’s articles, a process called deeplinking. The issue of whether one web site can re-publish portions of articles from another site is a thornier legal question.
The law has long recognized the concept of fair use — a legal doctrine that attempts to balance the rights of the copyright owner with the rights of the readers. Courts generally look at four factors in determining if it really was fair: The purpose and character of the use; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount used; and the effect of the use on the market value of the work.
“The notion of using short excerpts to discuss other people’s work is nothing new,” Kwun said. “It’s part of the foundation of copyright. Copyright is not just about protecting material, it’s also about allowing other uses.”
Since the beginning of copyright law, there has been a debate about how and where copyrighted work can be shared. The Internet has not changed the law, Kwun said; it’s merely made taking and sharing content much easier.
As the Internet continues to revolutionize the way news is shared, it’s clear the debate over how much content can be taken and how many links can be used will continue. Copyright law and the defense of fair use, too, will keep having to adapt to the changing technological world.
“Fair use evolves over time,” Gillmor said. “I am hoping it will become a more liberal thing in general. The nature of this media world is to copy and share.”
A rule of thumb is that if the amount of copyrighted material you use from another web site would probably keep your reader from following the link to the original, you've used too much. However, even that doesn't guarantee that an owner won't sue; Righthaven, the law firm that obtains copyrights in newspaper articles and sues infringers, sued one site for printing four paragraphs -- along with the link to the original -- from a 34-paragraph article.
It is also important to keep in mind that summarizing the content of an article in your own words cannot lead to a successful infringement claim.