What are my rights and responsibilities?

As a web designer, it is important to keep your rights and responsibilities with regard to IP always in mind. This page seeks to discuss both legal aspects of IP as well as several practical matters.

Legal responsbilities

The owner of a copyrighted work maintains rights over that work. Thus, the wholesale taking of such a work and republishing it is a definite no-no unless permission is granted. To do anything more than quote from a work, permission is usually required. Lawsuits based on IP are generally civil -- not criminal -- matters.

Unlike with most "physical" items, when you purchase a copyrighted work, such as a book, you are buying 1) the physical item (the book) and a licence to use that book. You do not, however, have the right to reproduce that book and distribute it to others. Particularly with regard to texts and music, royalties must often be paid to a publisher if such texts are to be reproduced. For example, radio stations pay royalties for each song played. The copy centers of universities pay publishers royalties when they make copy packets including articles, etc. On the other hand, if you buy a table, you have the right to take it apart, put it back together and make your own tables just like it.

Passing yourself off as another legal entity is a no-no. Be careful when it comes to using a company's trademark. This is particularly the case when you own a company selling something. For general web design, though, it is not a major issue. However, creating a logo for your site which closely resembles that of a known trademark can land you in hot water.

Patents will rarely play a role in web design. However, if they do, you will usually be in the position of needing to pay a royalty to the patent holder.


It is important for web designers to remember that they have several important and broad rights concerning IP and the ability to use IP without the permission of the creator of that IP. Most such uses fall under the general term "fair use".

Quoting from published materials is almost always fair use. Even if a text states that it may not be "quoted without permission", you do have a right to quote from it. The only exception is in the case that you have actually signed a contract stating you will not quote from a text prior to seeing said text.

Academics and others quoting for the sake of commentary possess broad-ranging rights of fair use. On the other hand, this does not translate into a right to re-publish.

Parody/satire is a strongly protected right. Feel free to satirize whatever you wish. Make parodies of companies, distort their trademarks, etc. Whenever a company sues on such a matter, they lose. There are only two lines that cannot be crossed. First, while political satire is protected, websites are considered publications and are often categorized as support for a candidate; as such, they may come under certain federal election laws. Second, while parody is protected, misrepresentation is not; it is one thing to make fun of Coca-Cola. It is another to try to get others to believe that your site is an official Cocal-Cola site. The boundaries here, however, are not entirely clear.

This goes for appropriation of corporate as well as personal material. Feel free to quote from the NY Times (just don't copy and paste their entire article). Feel free to quote from someone's online diary or online fiction. Feel free to make a Star Wars or Microsoft parody site. Feel free to "borrow" someone's personal picture or artwork online and make fun or it or criticize it. While not necessarily "nice", these activities are protected.

Disclaimer: IANAL -- I am not a lawyer. Do not treat the above as legal advice. It merely represents my knowledge and interpretation of U.S. law. Furthermore, while copyright protection according to the Berne Convention is standard among many countries, the rights that individuals have ("fair use") are not so universal.

DOs and DON'Ts

Having covered several legal issues, let me now provide some practical and perhaps even ethical DOs and DON'Ts.

DO ...

  • give credit where credit is due.
  • quote freely.
  • ask for permission to use copyrighted works, especially if you are doing more than quoting.
  • look at the source code to a webpage and learn from it.
  • feel free to satirize and parody
  • feel free to distribute works in the public domain

DON'T ...

  • pass off someeone else's work as your own.
  • copy whole copyrighted texts without permission.
  • copy other peoples' original artwork to display on your website just because you think it looks "cool". Ask for permission.
  • copy whole site designs. Don't copy other peoples' HTML code either. This amounts to plagiarism. Do, however, contact the author of the original and ask for permission to use their design.


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