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CNET Special Feature: Law and the Web

As more companies latch on to the commercial potential of the Internet, artists, agents, and their attorneys are looking to protect their assets.

As more companies latch on to the commercial potential of the Internet, they're looking to protect their assets. Citing terms like trademark infringement,copyright violation, and unfair competition, artists, agents, and their attorneys are sending out swarms of "cease-and-desist" letters.
Some are more polite than others, and the missives vary in their threats and demands. But the point is generally clear: Remove the unauthorized material from your Web site or we'll take legal action.

Can you post pictures of Bill Clinton on your site? How about Bart Simpson? Is it OK to link to the Dilbert site? Answer these questions incorrectly and you could be greeted by a platoon of handsomely paid lawyers tomorrow morning. Read CNET's feature and learn the basics of copyright, trademark, and libel law.

Copyright law
Domestic copyright law is covered by Title 17 of the United States Code--but since the scope of the Internet is global, copyright is also affected by an international treaty known as the Berne Convention. Both documents protect literary and artistic works by granting copyright holders exclusive rights, such as reproduction, distribution, and performance. The problem is that neither United States laws nor international treaties specifically address the Internet.

Trademark law
Trademark law has important implications for Web publishing. Many companies claim trademark infringement or dilution when pursuing unauthorized uses of their names or logos on the Web--but it's not entirely clear how these laws apply to noncommercial activity on the Net.

Libel law
Traditionally, the courts have distinguished between slander--which is a comment that appears in a transitory form, such as speech--and libel, which is published. While some types of online communication might seem like speech, such as chats, it's more likely that a charge of libel would apply. The test is generally whether the comments appear in a fixed form that others can see, which means that anything posted on a Web page, in a newsgroup, or even in a public chat could qualify as libel.

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