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What Counts as Copyright Infringement?

Building a website? Don't get caught in a copyright mess.
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This story appears in the August 2007 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
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"Take a look at this website. Great colors! Love that design! And the interactive features are just what we want. Make one for us that looks as much like this as possible."

Those are risky words because the same laws that govern publishing apply to the wild and woolly web. Whoever creates music, images, writing or other creative expressions has a legal right not to have the material published by others without permission.

When designing your site, consider the following:

  • You can't copyright an idea, but the law protects the expression of the idea. So a feature that's merely functional, such as a menu tree, doesn't qualify for copyright protection. However, the more artistic a design is, the more likely it is to be protected by copyright.
     
  • Make sure you have a legal right to use any music, photos, images, writing or other creative material on your site. This typically involves finding out who owns it and paying a fee to use it.
     
  • The arrangement of colors and shapes on a screen count as part of a company's "trade dress," which is the packaging that helps the public identify the company. If you copy someone else's website design, you may be infringing on their trade dress.

While it's impossible to make your site unique in every way, look for assurances that your web designer developed it independently.

Jane Easter Bahls is a writer in Rock Island, Illinois, specializing in business and legal topics.

Edition: May 2017

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