Copyright laws apply to all writing that is "fixed" on paper or in any electronic medium - from the most polished Web page to the most casual comment in a "chat" room. Does this mean you can't use anything that has been written by someone else in your electronic communications? Not at all. Copyright law recognizes a concept called "fair use" which allows limited copying in certain circumstances that consider the intent of the original creator and the intent of the person doing the copying. An important factor in assessing whether or not a use is fair is whether or not the use affects potential markets or the value of the work.
The social context surrounding various kinds of electronic communications tells you a lot about the intent of the original creator and about how your use of someone else's work will be viewed. The examples that follow are intended to stimulate you to think about "fair" and "unfair" uses of material originally created by someone else in electronic media. For more in-depth discussion of copyright issues in electronic media, visit the copyright menu.
Examples of Copyright issues in various electronic media.
Writing to a University database such as SIS is electronic communication in the sense that you are creating information that will later be retrieved and used by others. In general, databases can't be copyrighted, but the rules about confidentiality are more stringent than copyright rules (because the person described by the data has privacy rights). Thus, you are free to use data from University databases and to include it in other electronic communications, within the limits of confidentiality and work purpose that apply to all use of such information.
Email is fundamentally a one-to-one kind of communication. Usually, the author of an email message does not intend to sell what they have written in the message, so copying the contents doesn't usually infringe their ability to market their product. Likewise, a copy of an email usually is not intended to earn a profit but rather to extend the communication to include others. Copyright law does apply, even though email is "temporary. But the copying privileges that are available under the "fair use" doctrine are fairly broad. Social problems can arise over email because it is so easy to forward a message to someone else, violating the author's one-to-one expectation. This problem is usually one of courtesy, but it also could be seen as a violation of copyright.
Putting something on the Web is more like formally publishing it, so "fair use" has a narrower interpretation in this medium. The reasons for taking extra care when including the work of others into your web pages include:
As time passes, it is certain that new forms of electronic communication will be invented and become popular. They will raise their own issues regarding copyright and "fair use". A thorough understanding of the intent of copyright law will be essential in make sound judgments about appropriate use of the work of others.