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Property Rights
What you don’t know can hurt you

By Daniel Will-Harris

11-10-97 - There is one update to this piece.

As a society, we all know that the thin pane of glass separating sidewalk from store means we must pay for what’s inside. We all agree to this unquestionably. People can break the glass easily, but for the most part they don’t--that’s how strong this social force is.

But on the web, the only pane of glass is the one on your monitor. You view your own personal work through it, as well as the work of others. So the social force barrier that’s so strong in the “real” world is suddenly nonexistent in cyberspace.

So now intellectual property defies traditional ideas of ownership. We’ve all heard that “Possession is 9/10th’s of the law” and suddenly here we are with a world of information seemingly in our possession.

The problem is compounded by the fact that most people don’t understand copyright law. They know that stealing a tangible item is wrong, but they don’t think of the information on the web as tangible.

The first solution is clear: education. People need to be aware of what they can and can’t do with things they save off the web, or they invite serious liability for themselves and their companies. Don’t just place a copyright notice on your site--make it a link to a piece that explains this so that everyone can understand it. Or even make it a “feature” of your site. The more people that understand, the safer your work.

The rule is simple: Don’t reuse anything from the web without written (or e-mailed) permission. This even applies to sites which claim to offer shareware or public domain graphics or fonts. Many of these items are really commercial products that have found their way onto the web via unscrupulous or unsuspecting webmasters.

Mary E. Carter, author of Electronic Highway Robbery (Peachpit Press, 1996) says, “Most intellectual property you see on web sites is owned by the creators. It is copyrighted. You must ask for permission to link and to download. Some copyright owners are very generous with their work and will let you use it for free. Some will ask for a usage fee. When in doubt, ask. Do not assume that just because it’s on the web, it’s free for the taking. It is not.” In other words, it’s tempting to use something from the web in one of your design projects--but it’s not the right thing to do without permission.

What about your intellectual property? The first step is to include a copyright notice at the bottom of every page of your web site, “[© Copyright [dates] by [author/owner].” Consider making your copyright statement a link to another page detailing what people can and can’t do with your material, and providing an e-mail address where readers can write to ask for permissions.

You don’t have to actually register every page of your site with the copyright office--unless you encounter a problem with infringement.

The best way to protect images and audio is using a technology from Digimarc. This technology allows image and audio creators to embed an “imperceptible watermark that survives multiple generations of copying, modification, printing, scanning, and compression. A watermark may carry a copyright notice, a unique serial number, a transaction ID, as well as other application specific data.” DigiMarc is currently included as part of Adobe Photoshop4, Micrografx Webtricity 1.0 & Graphics Suite 2.0, and CorelDraw7 & PhotoPaint7. However, DigiMarc’s technology may not offer as much protection as originally advertised (read the New York Times coverage).

Unfortunately, there’s no way to secure HTML text. However, two “digital document” formats, Adobe’s Acrobat and Tumbleweed’s Envoy offer password protection and “read only” modes so that people can view but not copy. Both these formats can be embedded into a web page and viewed with free browser plug-ins for Netscape, or ActiveX controls for the Internet Explorer.

Finally, here are some things you can do to help protect yourself.

  • Place a page’s copyright and URL as plain text at the bottom of the page--that way even if people save it to disk for later reference, they’ll still know where the information came from.

Hide your site’s URL inside the HTML page as a comment using the <!comment> tag. Then if someone appropriates your HTML text your URL may still remain, allowing you to use AltaVista to find it (most other search engines ignore HTML code, except for that included inside a TITLE or META tag).

  • Never place your logo so large on a site that it can be reduced and printed clearly.
  • Never scan your signature and include it in your personal on-line greeting.

Finally--your best protection is: Don’t put anything on your web site you wouldn’t leave on your doorstep.


United States Copyright Office

News.com - Copyright info including quiz

Electronic Highway Robbery by Mary E. Carter (Book)

The US Copyright Act (at Cornell University)

The Copyright Clearance Center (a nonprofit center)

TypeRight (nonprofit group covering copyright issues as related to type)

10 Copyright Myths   (excellent, clear coverage of common misconceptions)


There now seems to be more hope for protecting your content--even though it's just on the horizon. The spec for HTML 4.0 calls for "read only" pages--pages which the browser would not allow the reader to swipe over (interesting phrase!) to copy text, nor could the page be saved to disk. Hopefully, browser's will be smart enough to not cache the page as well. This is a real ray of hope, and I've spoken to several web creation tool vendors who will support this features when browsers do. When that happens, the face of protection on the web will change--and it can't come too soon.



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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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Copyright Daniel Will-Harris, 2001, All Rights Reserved