Skip to Main Content

Course & Subject Guides

Copyright and Intellectual Property Toolkit

Here you can find information, resources, and tools to address copyright issues and concerns in research and teaching.

Copyright FAQ- Web

1. Do the same copyright laws apply to online or digital information as print information?

Yes and no.

Digital and electronic media, digital objects, and online information—no matter what you call them, you have to consider copyright when using them.  These types of media are copyrightable just like printed works are, but in some cases, additional rules and regulations apply. Electronic information and digital media have some unique qualities (for example, the ease with which they can be copied, edited, shared, and downloaded) that Title 17 of the U.S. Code (also known as the U.S. Copyright Law of 1976), which was designed more for the print environment, has struggled to address.

In addition to conventional copyright protection, some of the provisions of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act may also apply to electronic media, digital objects, and online information.  

2. What is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a U.S. public law (PL 105-304) enacted in October 1998. The act amended Title 17 of the U.S. Code (the Copyright Law) to extend the reach of copyright, while limiting the liability of internet service providers (ISPs) for copyright infringement by their users.

The DMCA also instituted prohibitions against the “circumvention” of technologies that control access to copyrighted works--meaning, users and owners of compact discs or DVDs should not bypass the digital rights management (DRM) or other protective safeguards designed to prevent unauthorized copying of these works.

According to copyright scholar Kenneth Crews, there have been concerns that the legislation impedes fair use and other lawful uses of copyrighted works, although some of these concerns have been tempered over time due to court rulings and exceptions issued by the Librarian of Congress.

3. Where can I find out more about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act?

A summary of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (produced by the U.S. Copyright Office) may be viewed in full here in PDF format.

The changes made to U.S. Copyright Law by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act are detailed in Appendix B of Title 17 of the U.S. Code.

The American Library Association website offers a brief overview and updates about the DMCA.

The American Library Association also offers an in-depth analysis of the DMCA by Jonathan Band of Morrision and Foerster LLP. 


4. Where can I find out more about the fair use defense of using copyrighted materials?

Please see the fair use section of the general copyright FAQ.

5. What do I have to consider before placing a picture or an image on a website?

Many people (mistakenly) assume that if an image is on the web, it is up for grabs, meant for public access and use. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Just because an image is viewable on the web does not mean that it’s automatically available for use in any capacity. Remember that copyright is automatically conferred upon the creation of a work, including images.  

Thus, you should assume that an image is copyrighted if it is on the web. You then can consider the four factors of fair use to determine whether you can legally reuse the image and place it on your website.


6. Are there any images or pictures “up for grabs” on the internet, ones that can be used without infringing the rights of copyright owners?

Yes, there are.

According to this helpful LibGuide published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), you have a number of options for finding images that you can reuse on the web or employ in other projects.

  • Use images identified as being in the public domain, such as many of those from Public Domain Image
  • Find images that have been licensed or labeled for reuse. You can use Google Advanced Image Search, filtering the results by “usage rights.” (For example, retrieving images that can be shared for non-commercial purposes only.)
  • You can also use Creative Commons Search to find a number of online sources for reusable, shareable images, video, and music.
  • Use images created by the U.S. government. Many (although not all) are in the public domain.
  • Many of the images, maps,  documents, and video and audio recordings available online from the Library of Congress (sometimes referred to as the American Memory collections) are in the public domain or have copyright terms that allow reuse without permission. Check the individual collections and images for copyright terms.

The photo site Flickr and the media file repository Wikimedia Commons also can be sources for images designated for reuse. (Many of the images used to illustrate Wikipedia articles are derived from media found in Wikimedia Commons.) Rather than being in the public domain, many of these works are designated with a Creative Commons license, which lets you know how the work can be reused.

The database ARTstor also offers has more than 500,000 digital art images that can be used for noncommercial and scholarly, non-profit educational use.

Caveat image user, though: There is often no way to guarantee that the provider of an image is actually the copyright holder. If you are not reasonably sure that you have permission to use "copyright free" materials from the web, it is best to ask permission from where you found the image.


7. What are Creative Commons licenses and where can I find out more about them?

Creative Commons licenses are an alternative to the “all rights reserved” approach of copyright law. With Creative Commons licenses, an author or creator can indicate how he or she would like to a work to be attributed or reused.

For example, a work designated CC BY-NC-SA means that someone using the work must attribute it to the original author (who the work is “by”), can only use it for non-commercial purposes, and states that those reusing the work or making new versions of it must continue the same license to the new work.

You can learn more about Creative Commons and the licenses on the Creative Commons website.


8. What is the “public domain” and where can I find out more about it?

A work of authorship is in the “public domain” if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.

You can find out more about the public domain on the ULS general copyright FAQ.


9. Can I scan images from print resources and post them on a website?

In some cases, yes. Scanning images from print resources is OK if the work is in the public domain or has a Creative Commons license that allows reuse of the original and the creation of new versions. In these cases, you can scan images without infringing on the copyright.

In other cases, no. You should remember that all reproduction rights for the work (the right to reproduce it, make copies, make new versions) belongs to the copyright owner. Thus, you may need permission to make copies, scan the image, and post it to a website.

10. Do I have to get permission to link to another site from my web page?

In general, no, you do not need permission to create a link to another web site. However, even though it is not required, it is considered polite to ask permission to create a link to someone else's information on the web, especially if you think linking will drive a lot of traffic to that site and put stress on the site’s servers.

You probably will need permission if you duplicate information (including images and icons) from another site on your own site, however. For instance, it is perfectly acceptable to provide a link to the CNN web site from your page, but you may not display their logo (a registered trademark) or reprint an article from the CNN site without appropriate permission.


11. I’m a professor. Can I scan course readings and put them up on a website for my students to read?

No, in most cases you cannot, at least not without permission from the copyright owner. Materials posted on the web would be widely accessible by people all over the world. In effect you would be distributing the information broadly, thus affecting the market for that work (see fair use factor #4).

An exception is that works in the public domain can be reproduced on a website without penalty. You can also provide citations and links to other websites and/or articles from electronic journals or full-text databases.


12. But I really need to put some things on reserve for my students to read. How do I do this?

If you are affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh and want to provide electronic access to articles and other information for students in your classes, you have a couple of options:

  • Direct your students to articles and information found in electronic journals, e-books, or full-text databases available via the University Library System (ULS) collections. Often you can link to these resources to share them with your students and colleagues.
  • Use Canvas, the University of Pittsburgh’s Blackboard site for assisting you with online teaching. You can link to full-text resources or sometimes make copies of these works available in your Canvas site
  • Consult with us if you need assistance in finding appropriate full-text electronic resources for yourself or your students.


13. What if I get permission from the copyright owner?

If you do request permission from the copyright holder to mount the work on the web, you may have to use a password or some method of security to protect against unauthorized access or illegal copying.

14. What if I use a system like Canvas, which uses passwords to restrict access to students in a particular class? Would that be fair use of copyrighted materials?

 Maybe. It’s not completely clear whether this is fair use or not.

Certainly, limiting access to students in a particular class makes a better case for fair use, but even in limiting access, you still have to consider the four factors of fair use, paying particular attention to the guidelines for brevity and spontaneity. For example, you could post an article in Canvas for one semester only and not re-use it unless you get permission from the copyright owner.

But is that enough?

Basically, if it’s not permissible to distribute copies of articles, images, or other copyrighted materials in paper format, then it’s not permissible to distribute them in electronic format via the web.


15. What kinds of information am I allowed to post on my website?

Any information that has been created by you as an author is generally acceptable to put on a webpage or a website. This includes syllabi, class notes, biographical information, curriculum vitae, etc. Articles or papers that you have written may be posted without permission only if you are the copyright holder for the work. If it has been published elsewhere, you may no longer own the copyright to the work and may have to seek permission to post it to your site.

If you copy a work or a significant portion of another work (including images) for which you do not own copyright and post it to a website without permission, you may be in violation of copyright law.

If you are developing an official University of Pittsburgh web page, see "Guidelines for University Web Pages" by the The Office of University Communications, on the University of Pittsburgh's Presentation on the World Wide Web. For other guidelines regarding web pages, see University of Pittsburgh Policy 10-02-05: Computer Access and Use.


16. Putting something up on a website is not the same as publishing something, is it? So do I have to worry about copyright?

Yes, you do. Posting something to the web, even if you don’t call it publishing, still means it’s protected by copyright law.

In the United States, "Copyright protects original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. The fixation need not be directly perceptible so long as it may be communicated with the aid of a machine or device" (Circular 1: Copyright Basics).

So once an image, article, book, or other work is created, it is protected under copyright whether or not it was published in a traditional manner or in physical form. Thus, if you post your own work or that of others to a website, you still have to keep copyright in mind.


17. Can I print, download, or e-mail information from a website or library database without violating copyright?

Yes, in general, it’s OK to print, download, or e-mail a single copy of a work from a database or website for personal, non-profit, research use.

Remember, though, that information on websites or found in databases is almost always protected under copyright law. Take care not to infringe the copyright by e-mailing, printing, downloading, or otherwise sharing multiple copies of the work. It is a violation of copyright and licensing agreements to copy an entire database or even significant portions of a database even for personal use. 


18. What else do I need to know about printing, downloading, or e-mailing information or articles from databases?

The University Library System and the University of Pittsburgh provide access to many databases, which contain articles, books, audio and video resources, and other information for scholarly research.

You can print, download, and e-mail this information because the University Library System has paid for a license for you to do so. In agreeing to this license, the University Library System aims to insure that database users are affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh (that is to say, database users are students, staff, or faculty of the university). The University Library System also agrees that the information available is used in accordance with any restrictions listed in the license (for example, only printing, downloading, or e-mailing one copy of an article for personal use).

The database provider, in turn, pays fees to the copyright owner of the information provided.

Thus, because of this license agreement, you can use the information you find in the database for personal, non-profit, research purposes.

19. What am I permitted to do if I am teaching a distance education course or am engaged in a distance education project?

It can be challenging to determine whether you can use copyrighted works and when you need to get permission to use them. Fair use, “safe harbor” provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, and the TEACH Act of 2002 come into play when using copyrighted materials for distance education courses.

The University of Pittsburgh University Center for Teaching and Learning provides guidance on using copyrighted materials for Pitt courses, including distance education classes.