Navigating the legal waters when it comes to Internet copyright law can get tricky. If a picture is posted on the Net, can you use it on your site? Must you credit text if it's pulled from another site? How do you protect what's yours?
Unfortunately, there aren't any cut-and-dried answers to these questions. But what's clear is that copyright law does apply to the Internet in broad terms. And whether it's a joke, audio file, video clip or piece of text in question, there doesn't have to be a copyright symbol and date next to it for it to be protected.
Let's say you find a picture of New York City on the Web and want to put it on your site. Chances are the picture is copyrighted, prohibiting your use of it without the owner's permission. What can you do? For starters, send an e-mail telling the site who you are and how you want to use the item. If you get permission, you're probably covered. If you don't--or they don't respond--generally, you can't use it. One way around the problem: Set up a link to the site. If you're set on using it, you still might be able to--but it's a bit trickier.
"It boils down to what's called `fair use,' " explains David Post, co-founder of the Cyberspace Law Institute, a virtual think-tank for cyberspace law. "Ask yourself: `Am I stealing something that took someone a great amount of time to create?' "
On the flip side, if you want to protect something on your own Web site, be sure to post an explanation of how it can be used. However, if it's really sensitive information, leave it off. Don't put your crown jewels on the Net.