Skip to Main Content

Using Content in Digital Format

Digital or electronic content, such as e-books, photographs on websites, and electronic databases are subject to the same protections under the Copyright Act as non-digital, traditional, or analog works. In addition, there are specific provisions relating to digital content in the 1998 amendment to the Copyright Act by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Many people assume that online content, or content found on websites, is not subject to copyright law and may be freely used and modified without permission. This is not true. Others think that online content is not protected unless it carries a copyright notice. This also is not true.

Copyright law protects almost all content on the Web or in any other digital or electronic form. Therefore, permission is most likely required to use that work beyond fair use.

What is Protected?

Any copyright-protected content in a non-digital form will be protected in a digital form. Examples of copyright-protected materials include the following:

  • Print and electronic books
  • Analog and digital musical recordings
  • Print and e-mail letters
  • Websites
  • Embedded works in websites

Both electronic and non-electronic databases (such as professional directories and collections of images) may be copyright-protected if they reflect some level of creativity by the author in the selection or organization of the data. With the proliferation of new databases in electronic form, Congress is discussing new legislation to protect even those databases that do not meet the requirements in the Copyright Act.

Unique Uses

The electronic environment features methods of reusing copyright-protected materials, including the following:

  • Scanning: Scanning or digitizing a work (such as an article, book excerpt, or photograph) produces a reproduction of that work. Prior to scanning a work, you must obtain permission from the copyright holder or its agent.
  • Using Content from a Website: Before using any content on a website, you should determine its copyright status and, if necessary, obtain permission from the copyright holder or its agent.
  • Posting Content to a Website: Posting copyright-protected content on a website requires permission from the copyright holder or its agent.
  • Forwarding E-Mail: The copyright in an e-mail belongs to the author of the e-mail. The copyright in an e-mail attachment belongs to the author of the attachment. You must obtain permission from the applicable copyright holders or their agents before forwarding an e-mail or e-mail attachment.
  • Linking to a Website: A link on a website lets you click and connect to another area of the same site or to a different site. A link from your site to another website (especially to a page other than the homepage) may need the consent of that website’s owner. U.S. law is not clear on this issue. In an effort to be safe, many organizations only link their own sites to the public home pages (rather than the internal pages) of other websites. To ensure compliance, obtain permission even to link to another website’s home page.
  • Electronic Discussion Lists, Bulletin Boards, and Newsgroups: Copyright law protects all types of electronic discussions, including messages that appear in your e-mail inbox or ones that you access from a website or computer network. You should not reproduce or forward any comments from any electronic discussion list, bulletin board, or newsgroup without the permission of the copyright holder or its agent. Note, however, that there is considerable controversy over the issue of ownership of works published to such public or semi-public electronic forums.