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Protecting Copyrights Online

© 1999 Virginia Lawrence, Ph.D.

The World Wide Web has introduced new problems into the realm of intellectual property. As you will see, artists have tremendous resources to help them protect their copyrighted graphic materials. So far, writers have only their negotiating skills.


Do you worry about placing your photos and graphics on the Internet? Of course, your copyright still applies, but we know that people happily grab images for personal and business use. How can we stop them? The answer is digital watermarking which embeds a digital copyright signature into every image.

Unrecompensed online publication is similar to giving away European rights... The publisher is definitely using an article twice after paying once.

Start with Adobe PhotoShop 4.0. Using PhotoShop, you can apply a digital watermark to every image you create or process. The watermark is mostly impervious to changing file and media formats, and the watermark does not damage the image. When you find your image being used by someone else, you can use PhotoShop to uniquely identify the image as yours, even after the image has been printed or scanned.

Marking an image with an unique digital watermark, however, does not communicate the name of the owner. That's where the Digimarc Personal Lite service comes in. This free service provides each registrant with an ID code to be embedded into the digital watermark created with PhotoShop. If you embed your code into the watermark on an image, anyone who downloads that image and views it with PhotoShop will see that the image is copyrighted. If the person viewing the image then connects to the Digimarc Web site, he will find your name as the owner of the copyright on the image.

Of course, we still have the problem of finding our images when they are being illegally used somewhere among the millions and millions of Internet Web pages. The Digimarc Professional service provides the solution by searching for your images. Digimarc will track your images on the Web with a monthly online report giving you a list of any Web sites using your watermarked images on the Web. The charge is only $99.00 per year. See the details at As one reviewer said, the Digimarc method is "Way cool!"

Literary Works

I have not yet found a digital watermarking scheme that works well with written documents on the Web. So far, writers and publishers are just starting to recognize the various aspects of copyright infringement. For example, copyright law states that literary works are "works other than audio visual works, expressed in words, numbers, or other verbal or numerical symbols or indicia, regardless of the nature of the material objects, such as books…tapes, disks, or cards in which they are embodied."

What does this mean to those of us using the Internet? For starters, did you know that existing copyright law considers your e-mail to be a literary work? This means that the e-mail messages you receive are also considered to be literary work, and we risk copyright infringement every time we forward an e-mail message. There is some debate concerning whether the author of an e-mail message has created the message in a "fixed form." Nevertheless, the copyright of an e-mail message currently belongs to the author of the e-mail message, just as copyright of a letter belongs to the author of the letter. We do not have the right to copy or forward an e-mail without receiving permission from the author.

Those of us who write articles for print publications should be reviewing the contract for each article to see whether the publisher is taking Internet publication rights. Many of the print media are expanding into the Internet and simply converting articles submitted for one-time print publication. This means that the authors are paid only for print publication, yet the publisher can publish the work online without additional payment.

Now, doesn't this sound like signing away European rights to your book? Unrecompensed online publication is similar to giving away European rights, yet it is different. The publisher is definitely using an article twice after paying once.

Is the publisher making any money on the second use? He is probably not making a cent. While most online publications are not yet breaking even, online publishing is a required activity for serious print publishers.

In a judgment reported in Intellectual Property in November 1997, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York chose to side with print publishers who were reprinting in electronic databases and CD-ROMs. The judge decided that The New York Times had the right to convert the contents of their print publications into online databases, because the newspaper had the right to reproduce and distribute "any revision of that collective work."

What does this mean to writers? If we do not secure by contract a higher price for material which will be used both in print and on the Web, we currently have no legal recourse after a publisher publishes our work in both media. It's probably too early in the development of the Web to finagle higher payments for our work, but we should keep a close eye on the profitability of publishers' Web sites. As soon as those sites generate revenue streams for publishers, the authors should be ready to partake in the increased income.

~ Virginia Lawrence is a technical writer, editor, and professional webmaster who publishes both in print and online.

She can be reached at or at her Web site,



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