The Internet TESL Journal

Copyright Issues on the Web

Kristina Pfaff-Harris
kristina [at]
The University of Nevada, Reno, Mathematics Center

The WorldWide Web is filled with resources for teaching and learning English, as well as for finding those resources. Much of this information is in the Public Domain, and may be copied freely. Unfortunately, the line between Copyright and Plagiarism issues is often loosely defined, and many teachers and students are unsure of the limits. This article discusses some of those issues so that teachers can keep themselves and their students from unethical use of web resources.

1. What is "Copyright?"

In the United States Constitution, copyright was intended as an incentive for scientific, artistic, or other creative achievement. It allows for the author of a work to retain the sole rights to copy or distribute that work for a certain time period. Copyright was not, as is popularly believed, designed to restrict access to these works. On the contrary, the idea behind copyright was that by allowing authors to retain the rights to their work, the authors would feel more inclined to create more works, thus increasing the volume of creative effort within the society in general.

International laws differ widely, but in the United States, a work is copyrighted by the author at the moment of creation. A copyright notice or symbol, or "official" registration of a copyright is not necessary -- the rights automatically exist. All copyright means is that no one else should copy the work in question without the author's permission. (Carol Scheftic has presented an excellent discussion of copyright issues in her lecture notes for "Communicating Mathematics with Hypertext.")

This brings up difficult issues for the Web. Many web browsers automatically copy every page to a cache on the user's hard drive, thus technically violating copyright. (The US has tentatively decided that this is not a violation of copyright, but that printing or "WebWhacking" a site may be.) In general, viewing a website or printing a page from the site is acceptable, as long as the author is credited with the work. However, before distributing copies of a web page, it is always preferable to ask permission of the site creator or administrator. This is not only courteous, but may stave off problems later. Since most websites represent a tremendous amount of work, asking permission to use the material therein is usually quite gratifying to the authors. If the person in question refuses to let you use the material--well, there are usually many other sites which will offer similar material for free.

2. What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism, as we all know, is taking the work of someone else and submitting it as your own work. Copying pages from an encyclopaedia or a novel and presenting it as your own writing is obviously plagiarism and none of us would consider it for a moment. But what about websites?

Perhaps the most-often plagiarized works on the web are "links" sites -- sites such as "Yahoo," or "The Linguistic Funland TESL." Sites such as these collect links to relevant resources, including short descriptions of the sites. Many people see nothing wrong with copying the information from these pages wholesale, and pasting them into their own "links" site without giving credit to the original site or its creator. It can be quite frustrating for the creators of such sites to see their work taken in this way, since they often have put hundreds, if not thousands, of hours into describing the sites and setting up their pages.

3. What is Acceptable Use?

"Acceptable Use" varies in the opinion of many web page creators. For some, "acceptable use" is limited to viewing the pages. For others, it is completely unlimited. The key is to ask the site administrator if you are in doubt. Putting material on the web is publishing it in a global forum. Unlike making print-out copies for your class, how you use the material can be seen by anyone with an Internet connection. Thus, taking any material from a website and posting it to your own website could be seen as publishing someone else's material under your name.

In general, making a link to a page -- any page -- on the web and including the title of the page is always acceptable. After all, having material on the web is akin to having a publically accessible telephone number. Since anyone can access it, anyone can make a link to it. Exceptions to this are sites which are password-protected. Unless you have specific permission from the administrator of the site, it is not considered acceptable to distribute the password. This cannot be stressed enough: simply linking to a site is neither a violation of copyright nor plagiarism unless you take steps to make it appear that the site you are linking to is also your work. For example, if you made a link to another site and titled the link "More of my favorite resources," that could be seen as unethical. Of course, some people will believe that any link on a site is the work of the creator of that site. This cannot be avoided. However, using either the author's name or the title of the site is courteous and shows acknowledgement of the other's work.

Another "acceptable use" issue is posting letters from a mailing list or newsgroup to a web page. Many of those who use such discussion groups do not want their words taken out of the context of the discussion and put into a different context on a web page. In general, while the posts to a mailing list or newsgroup can be read by anyone who cares to subscribe, they are not intended for an audience in another venue. Taking the time to email the author of the message and explaining what you would like to do with the message will often avoid hard feelings. Again, if the author of the message refuses to give you permission to use it, you can almost always get the information elsewhere. No one really wants to use material where permission has been refused by the author, do they? I should point out that this is not a copyright or plagiarism issue, but rather one of professional courtesy. Before you use someone's message, ask yourself if you would want to be "quoted out of context."

Along the same lines, public posting of private email messages is generally seen as absolutely inappropriate anywhere. A private email, like any communication between two people, should never be shared with anyone else unless the sender explicitly gives his or her permission for such distribution. More hard feelings have been caused by this that almost any other distribution problem on the Internet. Simply taking the time to ask is extremely important. Again, this is a professional courtesy issue, and not an issue of either copyright or plagiarism.

An important question to consider here is "What can be copyrighted?" Again, international laws differ, but here are a few guidelines:

  1. Alphabetical lists containing simply links to other pages and the titles of that page cannot be "copyrighted," just as any public information directory such as the alphabetical list of telephone numbers in a phone book cannot be copyrighted. While such lists may in fact involve many hours of work on the part of the compiler, they are not considered to be "creative works" in the sense that alphabetical organization is a common standard and there are few other ways to organize such lists. For example, a list such as this one:

    may be copied, although it would be courteous to credit the compiler of the list. (E.g. "Thanks to John Smith who compiled much of this list.")

  2. Lists of links which contain descriptions of the sites should not be copied wholesale to another page, as the descriptions, even if only a paragraph, do represent "creative work." This is similar to the "yellow pages" part of a phone book, where publically accessible telephone numbers are categorized in a certain way, and where advertisements and other text are included along with the name and number of the business or individual. For example, a list such as this one:

    • Carol Scheftic's (Copyright) Credits and References Page has links to online information about copyright issues, including mailing lists, newsgroups, other websites, and print references. This is the best place I've found to find out about copyright issues on the Internet.

    • The Internet TESL Journal contains articles relevant to Teachers of English. Their outstanding website also includes links to other online resources, back issues of the Journal, and other helpful information for teachers.

    • The Linguistic Funland TESL contains links to hundreds of resources for English Language teaching and learning on the web, including job announcements, materials and software, student projects, activities for students, mailing lists, and more. Lynx-friendly version available.

    • Scripts for Educators has publically available cgi scripts to help teachers make their websites more interactive. Vocabulary search, math parser for the web, site submission form, and an online quiz are available. Extensive documentation for those new to cgi programming.

    should not be copied unless A) you remove the descriptions and replace them with your own, or B) you first ask the owner of the site. Again, professional courtesy suggests that if you do copy resources such as this, you at least credit the original compiler of the list.

  3. Materials and lesson plans should not be copied unless the page states that doing so is acceptable. In any case, such materials should not be placed on your own webpage without permission from the original author. If the materials are marked "Public Domain," and permission is given to do whatever you like with them, it is still courteous to let the author know what you are doing with their material. Remember too that the author should be credited as a professional courtesy.

  4. Graphics such as bullets, logos, photographs, or other images should not be placed on your own page unless the original owner of those images has declared them freely available for such use. One important note about images: photographs taken by professional photographers or photography studios (such as a class picture) are often copyrighted and placing those images on a web page can be considered unlawful at worst, and unethical at best. For this reason, it's best to ask the photographer if you may place the photo on your page. If he or she says no, you may always take a photo of your class yourself. This can even be a learning experience if the students can participate in the scanning and uploading of the photographs.

  5. Informational resources such as online encyclopaedia or dictionary entries, historical papers, journal articles, or other academically valuable information should not be copied, just as articles in a paper journal should not be published elsewhere as one's own work. If your students are doing research online, asking the web administrator for permission to use the work can be part of the learning experience as well. For research papers, students should be aware of the format for referencing online resources, and this can be part of the assignment.

4. Conclusion

The global accessibility of online resources brings up many issues in how to use such resources. While many web site administrators on the Internet believe that information should be free and publically available, some wish to maintain a strict hold over information on their site. The best way to ensure that you and your students are using resources appropriately is simply to ask the administrator of a website or the author of an email message for their permission and to give credit where credit is due.

While it may take time to ask for and receive permission, it is almost always worthwhile to do so. Many site administrators and others will be flattered that their work is considered worthy of use, and will be happy to give permission to copy it. Asking for permission can also avoid angry responses from the original authors who will probably eventually find their work on your website and be offended at not having been acknowledged.

Contrary to popular opinion, many copyright and plagiarism issues on the Internet are simply issues of professional courtesy. Before using material from a website, ask yourself if you would want your own work used without acknowledgement. If your work has been used without your permission, a polite email message to the "user" will often solve the problem. Most people see work on the web as public domain, and do not view it in the same light as the same material published on paper. In a sense, we are all new to the Internet and many of these issues have yet to be completely dealt with. We all make mistakes -- if you have placed another's work on your own webpage, email the author and let him or her know about it. If someone has taken your material, be kind when pointing this out to him. Showing respect for our colleagues by acknowledging their work is always the best way to ensure professional harmony.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. II, No. 10, October 1996