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Is it OK to copy material from a website?

The short answer to this question is "no," unless the author's permission has been received. Copying material from a website and posting in on another website or publishing it in a newsletter, for example, may violate the copyright of the person who developed the website. The information need not have a copyright notice or symbol associated with it to be copyrighted, because copyright protection arises as soon as an author creates a work of original expression and fixes it in a tangible medium. The contents of a website are no different than the contents of a book or magazine in terms of copyright protection; the fact that website publishing is vastly easier than other types of publishing makes no difference.

Copyright law allows "fair use" of small parts of copyrighted works without the permission of the author. If the reproduction is for the purpose of criticism, news reporting, teaching, or research it is more likely to be fair use than if it is copied for commercial purposes. It is difficult to make this determination in advance, however. An example of fair use would be a book reviewer quoting a few lines from a book in an online book review.

A federal law passed in 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, makes it clear that materials published on the Internet are protected by U.S. copyright laws. The law makes some exceptions that are specific to Internet law. Internet service providers (such as AOL) can escape liability for infringing the copyright of materials that merely pass through their computers, for example in E-mail messages. If an Internet service provider removes infringing material promptly upon request, it also can escape liability.

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