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Content, Writing and Copyright Forum

    
Copyright - does ownership transfer with domain?
when copyright is listed as owned by domain
buzzmaster




msg:929782
 4:07 pm on Feb 25, 2004 (gmt 0)

If a website lists the copyright as: "Copyright thisdomain.com" does that mean that the content copyright is owned by whoever owns the domain?

For example, could someone else purchase the domain and then (re)publish the same content on it?

I see many sites that do this and I wonder if they're making a mistake.

 

trillianjedi




msg:929783
 4:36 pm on Feb 25, 2004 (gmt 0)

Yes, they're making a mistake.

A domain is not a legal entity and is not capable of owning copyright or other property.

I think the implication, however, is that the owner of copyright is the owner of the domain.

Wouldn't like to guess as to how a judge would rule on it.

TJ

buzzmaster




msg:929784
 4:45 pm on Feb 25, 2004 (gmt 0)

What if you wanted to resurrect a site that had previously carried this copyright (4 years ago) and the company is no longer in business?

Obviously these are questions for an attorney but I'm wondering if anyone has seen something like this.

ccDan




msg:929785
 7:17 pm on Feb 25, 2004 (gmt 0)

buzzmaster writes:
What if you wanted to resurrect a site that had previously carried this copyright (4 years ago) and the company is no longer in business?

I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure I know the right answer.

The answer is no.

The copyrighted material still belongs to someone, even if the company is no longer in business. It may still belong to the creator, or to someone else who may have purchased the company's assets.

The ownership of content and the ownership of a domain name are not permanently related, even if the company name is or was the same as the domain name.

Registering the domain name does not give you a license for any content that may have previously been published at that domain.

It's like buying a house. If you buy a furnished home, you get everything in it. It would be like buying a web site. If you buy an empty home, you get an empty home. You have no right to go and try to claim every piece of furniture the previous owner had in it. This is like buying a domain name.

buzzmaster




msg:929786
 7:45 pm on Feb 25, 2004 (gmt 0)

Dan,

I understand what you're saying. It makes perfect sense.

I was wondering though, if the web creator specifies that the content is owned by the domain (ex: Copyright Widgets.com) and then you later acquire the domain, would that not convey some right for use.

There are two different issues here. One is common sense, but the other is "legal sense".

It's unbelievably easy to sign-away your rights to just about anything.

buzzmaster




msg:929787
 7:52 pm on Feb 25, 2004 (gmt 0)

I believe there's a whole separate issue when discussing companies that are no longer in business.

I'm not a lawyer either but I believe that copyrights are enforced through civil law (lawsuits). Further, there must be some damages in order to bring a lawsuit against someone.

If the company is no longer in busines then there is no one to suffer damages and file the suit.

Am I missing something?

ccDan




msg:929788
 11:09 pm on Feb 25, 2004 (gmt 0)

buzzmaster writes:
I was wondering though, if the web creator specifies that the content is owned by the domain (ex: Copyright Widgets.com) and then you later acquire the domain, would that not convey some right for use.

I would still argue no. A domain is not an entity, and ownership must be by an entity, either a person or an organization, corporation, etc. I would argue that in "Copyright Widgets.com", "Widgets.com" is some kind of entity, as in "John Smith dba Widgets.com". In that case, "Widgets.com" would be no different than "Widgets Company".

So, owning the domain widgets.com gives you no claim of ownership over the intellectual property of "Widgets.com" anymore than owning a box saying "Widgets Company" gives you any claim over any of their intellectual property.

If the company is no longer in busines then there is no one to suffer damages and file the suit.

Am I missing something?

Yes. Whoever owns the content is the one who would suffer damages and file the suit.

Just because "Widgets.com" folded doesn't mean that John Smith doesn't still own all the content belonging to it. He may have not been able to afford to keep the site up anymore, but that does not mean that he relinquishes his claim to any of the content he created.

John Smith may have sold the content to someone else, and you don't necessarily know that. Maybe wild-widgets.com bought all the content but didn't want the domain. Maybe John Smith just put a site up under johnsmithwidgets.com and let the registration on widgets.com lapse.

The lack of a website does not necessarily mean the company is gone, nor does it mean that, even if the company is gone, that no one owns the content of the former site.

If you use the former site's content, you will have no idea who might come after you. Who owns that content? If you don't know, don't use it! Five years from now, when you've turned widgets.com into a multi-million dollar enterprise, do you want John Smith Jr. to be surfing the web and notice that you built your business on his father's hard work, that the Smith family still owns the rights, and comes along to sue you?

Unless you contact the previous site owner to determine the ownership of the content or unless the site owner has put up some kind of verifiable notice that he's putting his work in the public domain, I do not think that you should assume the ownership of the content is up for grabs or attached to a non-entity domain name.

bird




msg:929789
 11:40 pm on Feb 25, 2004 (gmt 0)

Buying a domain that previously displayed a line of nonsense on each page doesn't give you any rights other than ownership of the domain.

JayC




msg:929790
 11:45 pm on Feb 25, 2004 (gmt 0)

I was wondering though, if the web creator specifies that the content is owned by the domain (ex: Copyright Widgets.com) and then you later acquire the domain, would that not convey some right for use.

As CCDan explained, they're in error when they make the statement that copyright is "owned by the domain." The fact that they made that erroneous statement doesn't change the fact; it's not true. Since the domain name cannot own a copyright it does not -- so ownership of the copyright does not transfer with the domain name. It belongs to whichever person or entity actually owns it.

The statement on the site isn't even a legal necessity. When it's, as bird put it, "a line of nonsense" it's entirely meaningless.

buzzmaster




msg:929791
 1:09 am on Feb 26, 2004 (gmt 0)

I agree in principle with everything your saying.

I brought this up not because I want to encourage anyone to develop a million dollar site in this fashion. I was actually stewing about a guy who recently "borrowed" some material from one of our sites at the same time I was "checking out" a few expired domains... and a question was born.

In regards to this discussion, I guess I'm just a little more pessimistic about the US legal system.

I once had to sue a former employer for wages owed. This was as clear-cut as it gets. I was employed as a full-time employee with W2, etc. I worked the months in question and was asked to defer salary because the company was waiting for a big order.

The big order came (along with others) and I never received the back-salary. In depositions, everyone, including the bookkeeper agreed this money was owed. The company attorneys fought me on it.

I can assure you that common sense does not rule when it comes to the legal system.

For example, they at one point refused to show us the corporate financial records (which in this case was required by law). The law is that if we have to get a judge to compel, then they're required to pay attorneys fees. There's no gray area. We compelled but the judge "put off" his decision on attorneys fees.

They delayed for 2 1/2 years and eventually went bankrupt.

Fast forward to today. If you can make a case that at least an idiot could have believed the same, and you do your best to rectify as soon as you've been made aware....well, you get the idea. We've all heard about the burglar who breaks a leg while robbing the joint and wins a lawsuit against the homeowners for negligence of some sort.

I can't help but believe that any webmaster who puts this type of "nonsense" on his page is just giving someone an "easy-out". I also bet that one day someone will claim something like this and even win in court.

Like I said, I've seen it in action.

But, you've brought up an interesting angle that I wasn't considering. You're thinking about the small webmaster while I was considering large corporate sites for dot-com busted companies. Content was developed by many that were only doing their job, and none would have a claim on the copyright (or even care).

ccDan




msg:929792
 1:57 am on Feb 26, 2004 (gmt 0)

buzzmaster writes:
I can assure you that common sense does not rule when it comes to the legal system.

No, it doesn't. I know of an individual that ran a company. He gave his employees flexible hours. In a two-week period, they had to work 80 hours. But, they could bank those hours however they chose to do so. Work 10-hour days for four days and have Friday off. Or, work 5 10-hour days one week, 3 the next, and have a four day weekend. Their choice.

He got in trouble for that. Since he gave them an hourly pay, and they were not salaried employees, it was argued he was required to pay overtime for hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a week.

He eventually wound up losing the suit and going bankrupt. And, of course, all the employees that had enjoyed the arrangement no longer had that job. All because one person complained, even though they could have chosen a straight 8 hour, 5 day workweek if they chose to do so.

But, you've brought up an interesting angle that I wasn't considering. You're thinking about the small webmaster while I was considering large corporate sites for dot-com busted companies. Content was developed by many that were only doing their job, and none would have a claim on the copyright (or even care).

True, but even dot-com busts often get swallowed up. Their content may be purchased by another party, or it may just end up by the wayside. In some cases, the copyright may revert to the author. And, in others, it may end up owned by a company that purchases "all assets". So, someone or some company may own the intellectual property and not realize it.

Like the "certain pet store web site that went belly-up" spokesperson hand-puppet dog. That would be intellectual property, and it just didn't fall into the public domain after the dot-com busted. It was purchased by another company--and not by purchasing the domain name! ;-)

mgream




msg:929793
 8:09 am on Feb 26, 2004 (gmt 0)

Statutory law is quite straightforward: a work created is owned by the creator (if not a work for hire). Any "erroneous" markings as to who owns the copyright are irrelevant for this point, the real owner needs to be determined by who the creator originally was, and any successors in title. This would be a matter of evidence. If evidence was lacking there may be some presumptions: for example the legal owner of the website may be assumed to be the person who actually paid for the webhosting.

Statutory law says that copyright can only be assigned by written and signed instrument. Merely putting the "wrong" marking doesn't change this or imply any assignment or license. It only has an impact in infringement and any remedy claimed as part of such infringement.

If the marking was misleading, and some person made good faith use of the material (e.g. say the marking said "copyright US government") then said user would be infringing original copyright, but would likely not have to pay damages or costs because of the fault in the marking.

In the case of reviving the domain: you absolutely need to find out who the original copyright owners were and ask for an assignment or license. You can't simply rely upon the "marking" and make your assumptions. This would be quite dangerous.

buzzmaster




msg:929794
 1:49 pm on Feb 26, 2004 (gmt 0)

If the marking was misleading, and some person made good faith use of the material (e.g. say the marking said "copyright US government") then said user would be infringing original copyright, but would likely not have to pay damages or costs because of the fault in the marking.

This was sort of my point to begin with. There's not much risk when there's no penalty.

mgream




msg:929795
 2:33 pm on Feb 26, 2004 (gmt 0)

> This was sort of my point to begin with. There's not much risk when there's no penalty.

That's still not a valid point. If you - in ignorance - revived a web site, made profits, and then were subject to a law suit, you may well find (a) you lose the site back to the owner, (b) you may have to pay back any "gains" you made during that time, (c) you may still have to contribute to costs in some what. Perhaps I was understating the situation. Lucky this is just informal information and not legal advice :-).

The legal system won't penalise you badly for being an idiot, but it won't let you get off the hook.

The lesson is simple as it is in the rest of life: in any transaction involving the exchange of property, always do your checks and balances. Just like buying a used car or a new house: find _and_ check the paperwork properly. Use a legal professional who can do the proper checks if there's enough at stake. If there isn't then be very certain that you're aware of all the issues. If a legal professional makes a mistake, you can sue them for negligence: if you make the mistake, then it's your loss.

buzzmaster




msg:929796
 2:56 pm on Feb 26, 2004 (gmt 0)

Thanks for the advice. This was more of an intellectual excercise than a plan of action.

I wish it was as clear cut as you make it out to be.

We find our content is ripped-off every month. We'd never consider bringing suit against one of these guys. The attorneys fees, expert witness fees, etc. would far exceed their net worth, let alone possible damages or awards.

jomaxx




msg:929797
 6:15 pm on Feb 26, 2004 (gmt 0)

If you're asking "is it legal?", then the answer is very clear-cut. Owning the domain is nothing. I believe a company CAN control copyright (for example work for hire, as mgream alludes to, or the Beatles song catalog). But domain ownership has no connection to that whatsoever.

Now if you're asking "can I steal copyrighted material and get away with it?", then the answer is maybe.

buzzmaster




msg:929798
 6:39 pm on Feb 26, 2004 (gmt 0)

I was thinking more about the enormous amount of content that was developed by groups of employees at companies that later went bust (not merged or acquired, but truly bust). In these cases, there is no existing "entity" with a copyright claim to defend.

I'm not looking to do this. Even if I was, there hasn't been a site developed that has the required content to describe our business. I was just intrigued by the idea.

ccDan




msg:929799
 8:29 pm on Feb 26, 2004 (gmt 0)

buzzmaster writes:
In these cases, there is no existing "entity" with a copyright claim to defend.

The former owner or shareholders may be able to defend the copyright.

I've searched Google, and haven't found a clear answer.

I did find something worthy of noting.

A book author's publisher went out of business. But, in his contract, he did not have a clause that stated rights would revert back to him if the book should go out of print (which, naturally, would apply if the publisher goes out of business). In his article, he writes that the former owner of the publishing company will not return his calls, and that he may have lost his rights to his own work.

This despite the publishing company, the "entity", no longer existing.

It would appear that if you do not have clear ownership of copyrights, you may not be able to use even your own material!

This is not to say that if you self-publish, you need to worry. Only that if you assign any rights to anyone else, you need to make sure you maintain a paper trail so that clear ownership is established over which rights you do still have, and under what circumstances, if any, those rights revert back to you.

What I would understand this to all mean is that if you cannot establish a clear path of ownership over any content, do not use it. Unless you can establish that the work has been released into the public domain or unless you yourself purchase the rights to the content, you must assume that someone still holds the copyright on that material.

You may be able to get away with using the content of a defunct company, but if you do so, you will need to be forever watching over your shoulder in case a legitimate copyright holder does someday come forward and decide to sue.

Another issue is, how would you defend yourself if someone else did the same thing?

For example, if you buy widgets.com and re-use all of the previous owner's content, what happens when superwidgets.com comes along and duplicates your widgets.com site? Copies all of your content? What will you do then? If you try to sue, you would need to establish ownership over the content, and ownership of the domain itself will not do that.

Note that I know you've said that you were not going to do this--I am just using "you" in the conversational sense.

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