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Copyright laws and the Internet

Region: Ontario Answer # 357

Copyright laws make it illegal to copy any form of original work without the permission of the author. The author or creator of a work has certain legal rights. These rights apply even if the work does not contain a statement saying that the work is copyrighted. The general rules of copyright also apply to downloading information from the Internet and using computer software.

Copying information from the Internet

Canadian courts have found that a website’s look, layout, and appearance are protected by copyright. If you copy information or images from the Internet, without the author’s permission, you are probably unlawfully infringing on someone’s copyright. You can only legally copy someone else’s work if you have the author’s permission to copy it, or if your actions fall within certain exceptions set out in the Copyright Act, such as those applying to private study or research. As a result of international treaties, most copyrighted material that originates outside Canada will likely still be protected by Canadian copyright law.

Also, domain names (also known as Internet addresses) may be protected under trademark law if they meet the statutory or common law requirements for trademarks. For example, trademark owners may be protected from so-called “cybersquatters” who grab domains using trademarked business or product names.

There should be no doubt that copyrights, trademarks and other aspects of intellectual property law apply to the Internet in the same way as other media. For example, you cannot post the works of others on your website without permission (adding a line identifying the source is not good enough to escape prosecution). Similarly, you cannot copy a substantial amount of another’s work from the Internet and claim it as your own.

It is not unusual for users to assume that any material found on websites on the Internet is in the public domain and can be used without permission. That is just not so. A work enters the public domain only when its copyright expires (typically 50 years after the death of the author in Canada and even longer in other countries).

Using computer programs

Copyright law protects many forms of expression, including written works, sound recordings, multimedia works, video clips, and computer programs. Courts recognize that a computer program is a creative art form and many computer programs meet the originality requirement needed to obtain protection under the Copyright Act. The fact that a computer program uses well-known programming techniques or contains unoriginal elements may not prevent its protection under copyright law if the program as a whole is original.

When you buy a computer program, you usually only acquire a licence to use that program. Unless permitted under the licensing agreement, it is illegal to copy the computer program, to load the program onto more than one computer, or to modify the program so that it can be used by more than one person on a network. This is often called piracy.

For example, if you are buying a computer program for use by three employees, you often must buy three program licences, depending on what the software’s end user licence agreement (EULA) dictates.

 

What about messages posted on a discussion board or news forum?

Some would argue a posting carries implicit grants of permission for copying, but others say additional publication (such as in print) requires permission. For example, the U.S. and Canadian Copyright Acts specifically protect anonymous and pseudonymous works from unauthorized copying. For now, these are unsettled Internet issues.

Copyright infringement can be a serious criminal offence. Depending on the seriousness of the crime, you could be fined or sent to jail. If you have developed computer software or put information on the Internet that you would like to protect, you should contact an Internet, or computer and technology lawyer.

 

Responsibilities of Internet service providers

Under the Copyright Modernization Act, introduced in 2012, Internet service providers are not liable for copyright infringement if they are acting only as intermediaries in the provision of their communication, caching, and hosting functions. This exception does not apply if:

  1. The service provider is the provider of a service that a person knew or ought to have known is designed primarily to enable acts of copyright infringement and actual infringement results.
  2. A web host has knowledge of a court decision that states the stored material is an infringement of the owner’s copyright.

 

Illegal downloading from the Internet

Also, under the Copyright Modernization Act, people who own the rights to movies, television shows and music have the right to protect their property from illegal downloads. Copyright holders can request Internet service providers to relay warnings to people who have been monitored participating in illegal downloading. Downloading can include streaming services or torrents.

As of January 1, 2015, Internet service providers are legally required to pass on these warnings to subscribers. Under the notice-and-notice system, copyright owners are entitled to send infringement notices to Internet service providers, who are legally required to forward the notifications to their subscribers. Warnings from the copyright holder and subsequent notices from Internet service providers to subscribers act as notices (notice-and-notice) that, should the activity continue, the subscribers could be sued. The subscriber’s identity would be kept private through this process, but could be made available in the case of a lawsuit.

The notices must include details about the sender, the copyright works and the alleged infringement. If the Internet service provider fails to forward the notification, it must explain why or face the prospect of paying damages that can be as high as $10,000. Internet service providers must also retain information about the subscriber for six months (or 12 months if court proceedings are launched).

Additional information about copyright laws is also available under Intellectual Property Law.


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