Are Internet links that are listed on a website subject to copyright law?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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According to the United States Copyright Office, a copyright is “a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.” Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. Websites and their component parts are subject to copyright laws; any text, code, script, data, image, musical composition, etc. carries with it an inherent copyright the moment you finish working on it. 

Domain Registration

Intellectual property online does not extend to your URL. To protect your right to use a specific web address, you must purchase and register your website and domain. Domain registration is overseen by an international non-profit organization called The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).  ICANN serves as the central authority on who owns what site. Various accredited commercial websites offer domain registration services, and for a fee will register your web address with ICANN. Registration of your website with ICANN is the only way to protect your right to use a particular web address.

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Links and Copyright Laws

There is no law preventing other sites from posting links to your website. However, the manner in which the link is posted can violate copyright laws. To protect yourself and your content, ensure that you have notice of your copyright prominently displayed on your site, and register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, which is run by the Library of Congress. Registration, or the lack thereof, does not strengthen or weaken your copyright interest, but it does provide you with the ability to sue for statutory damages. This can be the difference between a $50 and $50,000 recovery. Be sure to register your copyright within three months of creation.

When a site links to your content, be sure they are simply posting a link and not actually using the content you’ve created. If they are, they’ve violated your copyright. For example, if you have a picture on your site that you’ve taken, another site may link to the picture.They may not use the picture, even as the link, without your express permission. The same rule applies for “background” information contained in the code of your site. If you’ve developed a piece of code or script that expresses an idea (for example, a some HTML that creates an original image), a site may not copy that code and use the image. They would be in violation of your copyright.

Posting a Copyright Statement

It is the creator’s responsibility to put the world on notice that work is copyrighted. This is done by inserting a statement to the effect of “Ó Copyright Creator X, 2011.” While U.S. law does not require the use of the “Ó” symbol, many other countries will. When dealing with the World Wide Web, always remember that site visitors—and potential pirates—can come from anywhere in the world. It is in your best interest to use both the “Ó” symbol and the word “copyright” in your notice. While notice or the lack thereof does not strengthen or weaken the actual copyright interest, it can be useful should you have to go to court.

Policing Your Own Content

Improper or illegal use of copyrighted information is common on the Internet. The vast majority of copyright violations are unintentional and relatively innocent in intent. Pictures posted on Facebook pages, quotations from blog posts or “borrowed” pieces of code can be found a virtually every amateur webpage. It is up to you, as the author or creator, to police how and where your work is used. Very likely, a simple email or post asking that content be removed or properly attributed will be enough to protect your rights and prevent improper use.

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