Copyright, the Internet and Why It Matters to You

Copyright law used to be fairly simple, when it all began — it only lasted for two years.

The first copyright law was created in the 18th century: the British Statute of Anne 1710. Passed to protect the rights of authors, the statute required them to renew their copyright every two years. If you didn’t renew, your work went into the public domain, and any printer could profit from it.

But since that first statute, it’s only gotten more and more complicated. Trying to research your rights is like going down a never-ending rabbit hole. And asking for advice can get you a dozen different answers, even when you’re talking to professional copyright lawyers.

But one thing is clear when it comes to copyright: It’s only gotten more and more restrictive since that first statute. Instead of only lasting two years, copyright today is still in place for decades after the creator’s death in most countries.

Today, the Internet makes the dissemination of information far easier than it’s ever been before. Now, we can instantly share text, photos, videos, and more across the world in seconds. Entire books have been digitized online, preserving and sharing knowledge that’s been protected and isolated for centuries. And once anything is released on the web, it’s impossible to take it back.

But that doesn’t stop copyright owners from trying. Patent litigation is skyrocketing, and the number of mass copyright infringement lawsuits is shooting up as well. It helps that litigators don’t even need to know the other party’s name, but can just name a “John Doe” in their suits. And some companies don’t stop at just filing suit, but try to intimidate and threaten their targets into settling.

On the other side of the copyright issues, many argue that the Internet is making copyright obsolete. What do you think? Check out the facts below.

Copyright, the Internet and You

Copyright, the Internet & Why It Matters to You

The internet is arguably the largest single threat copyright law has faced since it was first introduced. Governments are continually passing and creating new laws to keep up with this ever-changing digital landscape.

Here‘s how the internet has changed copyright law forever.

1991 – The first public website is launched.

1993 – The Working Group on Intellectual Property Rights is established.

1994 – The Working Group develops guidelines for fair use of educational multimedia, extending fair usage of copyright educational material to online resources.

1995 – Netcom, a US internet service provider, is sued for copyright infringement by Religious Technology Center for not removing copyrighted materials posted by a subscriber.

1995 – In the case of Religious Technology Center vs Netcom, the court cannot reach a verdict on the infringement or Netcom’s fair usage defense. However, a precedent is set for web service hosts being prosecuted for copyright infringement even if not directly involved.

1996 – Delegates from 160 countries develop a new approach to copyright issues, striking a balance between the rights of authors and the interests of the public.

1998 – President Clinton signs the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) into law, making several amendments to the Copyright Act to bring it up to date with technology.

1999 – Congress approves a significant increase in the minimum statutory damages for various types of copyright infringement in the Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act.

2000 – Heavy metal band Metallica sues Napster and their own fans for unauthorized distribution of their music.

2000 – A federal judge in San Francisco orders Napster to stop permitting the exchange of pirated music.

2002 – The Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act is passed, requiring any device that can record, receive, or store copyrighted digital information comply with copy protections encoded in digital works such as DVDs, CDs and ebooks.

2005 – The Family Entertainment and Copyright Act is passed, creating criminal penalties for individuals who record motion pictures in a cinema, or distribute unpublished works such as movies or software.

2005 – The Supreme Court rules in favor of MGM in a case that establishes that file-sharing services can be held liable for copyright infringement.

2007 – Jammie Thomas is sued for copyright infringement after downloading 30 songs using peer-to-peer file-sharing software.

2009 – Pirate Bay are indicted for complicity in breach of the Copyright Act, primarily charged with assisting in the global distribution of illegal content online.

2011 – The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is signed by the US, Japan, Switzerland, and the EU, requiring that copyright infringement is actively policed by signatories and criminal penalties administered.

2011 – Aaron Swartz is prosecuted for copyright infringement after a massive download of articles from JSTOR, a digital academic library. 

2012 – The US Department of Justice seizes and shuts down US file-hosting site Megaupload.

How to Avoid Breaking the Law

Before using any material that isn’t your own intellectual property, always check its copyright status thoroughly.

As a general rule, if a site doesn’t explicitly make clear the material is free for reuse or appropriation, then always assume it’s copyright material.

Keep in mind these simple dos and don’ts.


  • Make sure you‘re aware what is and isn’t protected by copyright law.
  • Assume content is protected until you can prove otherwise.
  • Check if works are available for public use and always credit the original author.

Remember: Ideas and facts aren’t generally protected, but literary works, paintings, photographs, drawings, films, music and software are all subject to copyright laws.


  • Assume something isn’t under copyright protection because it’s on the internet.
  • Share, upload or download literary works, software, photographs, drawings, films or music online without the copyright owner’s permission.
  • Put the contents of another website on your page without permission, or plagiarize the artistic works of others.

Remember: Budding writers and artists beware ­– fictional characters and storylines are protected by copyright law, which means fan fiction and drawings of characters are technically copyright infringements.

Copyright law varies wildly from country to country.

The internet has significantly changed the way we view and share content, and the law has had to tighten copyright legislation to safeguard protected material as a result.

Ultimately, however, it’s down to us to ensure we use online material ethically and responsibly.


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