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A question of copyright law an how it affects web templates

by arashi (Priest)
on Feb 18, 2002 at 17:08 UTC ( #146174=perlmeditation: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

For the purpose of this question, please assume the following definition of a web template:
An adaptive shell giving a user the means to create a multitude of web pages. Each with a similar look and feel with a minimal amount of coding. Accomplished by separating content from the delivery mechanism. The shell consists an HTML/XHTML front-end that is generated in part or wholly by a back-end script. A web template has the following 4 components: design (look and feel), content, front-end (HTML), back-end (JavaScript, Perl, etc...)

This is in response to my own growing curiosity of what the seemingly all inclusive copyright line at the bottom of most pages means.
Example: Copyright (c) 2002 - John Doe - All Rights Reserved.

Simply, I would like to know what the scope of such a line is?

The answer may be as simple as "the scope is all inclusive". Although, I suspect that the answer might be more complicated than that.

If it is indeed more complex, how does copyright affect all parts of a web template:
- to what extent is the overall design, look, and feel of a web template copyrighted?
- who owns the content of a web page that uses a web template?
- who owns, if anyone, the HTML front-end of a web template?
- who owns, if anyone, the back-end of a web template?

And finally, should a template, with all components of it, be considered as one object subject to copyright, or should only certain parts be copyrightable?


I'm sure Edison turned himself a lot of colors before he invented the lightbulb. - H.S.
  • Comment on A question of copyright law an how it affects web templates

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Re (tilly) 1: A question of copyright law an how it affects web templates
by tilly (Archbishop) on Feb 18, 2002 at 18:48 UTC
    IANAL and this is not legal advice.

    A phrase you see often from people with just enough knowledge of the law to realize that if they give advice on the law that someone else acts on, they can be held liable should that advice turn out to be inaccurate.

    I am such a person, and your question is one which clearly requires a lawyer for a full answer. (And that answer will probably be "it depends".) But here is my limited understanding.

    First of all it is a misnomer to say that a document has a owner under copyright. There may be many people who have some copyright assertion to it. For instance if merlyn writes an article, and then I write a paraphrase, we both have copyright on the paraphrase. Should my paraphrase be copied with modification by someone else, then all 3 of us have copyright on the last document. This can even be true even if no words of merlyn's have been preserved into the third copy.

    Does it seem strange that no word of the original survives but the result still has a copyright in effect? Believe it or not the first legal case pursued after copyright was introduced in English had this character! In Burnet v. Chetwood (1720) at issue was whether the executer of Burnet's estate could prevent an English translation of a work published by Burnet in Dutch from appearing. (He could.)

    Back to the question. Since multiple people may have copyright on the output, all of the people whose work is part of the output may have a copyright claim. Note the phrase, "part of the output". You may have used tools such as perl or gcc in the production of the output. But as long as what is produced does not include material from them, their copyrights don't extend to the produced work. However in the case of a template system, intellectual property within the template is part of the output and therefore is likely to be covered. Likewise javascript from the backend that appears is also covered. Content remains (unless alternate arrangements have been made) the property of its author(s). And I suspect that look and feel is likewise covered.

    So in theory virtually everyone has a right to the output, unless there are agreements saying otherwise. Whether they will enforce that right is a different question. But they have a claim, and if they wish the result not to be distributed etc, they have recourse to the courts.

    Incidentally this is why the GPL says in the preamble: <bockquote> Activities other than copying, distribution and modification are not covered by this License; they are outside its scope. The act of running the Program is not restricted, and the output from the Program is covered only if its contents constitute a work based on the Program (independent of having been made by running the Program). Whether that is true depends on what the Program does. Since a template system includes itself in the output, the output is a work based on the program...

Re: A question of copyright law an how it affects web templates
by dragonchild (Archbishop) on Feb 18, 2002 at 17:31 UTC
    While not an expert (or anything else!) in law and its application to the computer world, I would hazard that copyright law does not currently take into account the difference between form and function, at least not in terms of the WWW.

    The line at the bottom is, I suspect, an attempt to assert rights that may not have been fully clarified by the courts. There's a lot of brouhaha right now concerning form vs. content and whether or not different forms demand different copyright law. For example, look at the "fair use" provisions allowable for a copy of a book in paper form vs. a copy of that same book in eBook form. With the former, you have full "fair use" rights, but with the latter, you have none, including "photocopying for educational purposes". (q.v. DMCA for relevant subsections.) Is that applicable? I dunno. That's for the courts to decide.

    We are the carpenters and bricklayers of the Information Age.

    Don't go borrowing trouble. For programmers, this means Worry only about what you need to implement.

Re: A question of copyright law an how it affects web templates
by tjh (Curate) on Feb 18, 2002 at 20:27 UTC
    ditto: IANAL

    If the copyright issues, painfully raised by the net, in the U.S. aren't unresolved enough, the international implications are intense as well.

    Some info on copyrights and fair use can be found Here as well as thousands of other places.

    Not to make this any worse but the issues surrounding patent law have become incredibly obfuscated as well.

    In fact, your example of the template issue may currently be affected by patent issues. Not a direct example, but within the last few days British Telecom has said they will seek a claim regarding hyperlink technology on the premise that they have a patent on it!

    The nefarious 'method patent' has likewise screwed things up. The boobs at the U.S. patent office didn't know that they didn't know (hmm, that's much too passive; let me re-phrase): The boobs at the patent office who couldn't constructively realize they didn't understand the simplest things about the web allowed to patent "one-click shopping" ferchrissakes...

    Not that I have any opinions about this or anything... :)

    Now, where's my original art on "Here Docs"?

      Go easy on the boobs at the Patent office.

      When you have people being paid $30K/year who are rewarded based on how many patents they approve, you have to expect systematic abuse. And unless you are willing to rectify the system by volunteering for one of those jobs, don't be quick to blame the people applying the rubber stamps.

      The system as a whole is seriously broken at every level. But that doesn't mean that you should waste energy on incompetents who are only there because they can't get anything better in life.

        All true tilly, thanks for the reminders. I do have sympathy for anybody expected to do such a significant job with such long-term ramifications, especially when they're not being trained, have no apparant working system to reasonably and/or quickly resolve the lack of knowledge they must have to confront with every application in a limitless number of fields.

        In this particular case, my real beef is that even a modicum of knowledge could have indicated the silliness of the approval. That beef extends when whoever is responsible, the people working the claims and their supervisors, budget authorities, and others, don't fight to increase their knowledge before making such bellweather decisions.

        They should at least be able to realize when they don't know enough, and act to increase their knowledge, or get advice or issue RFC's...

        Ignorance is sometimes the culprit, but the devil is in the failure to cure the knowledge gap. Feeling stupid (which one shouldn't) by asking questions isn't near as fatal as increasing stupidity by not asking, and by not doing one's own research.

        On the job, we work to train as much and as often as we can, especially on-the-fly, to help ourselves. It is a constant, uphill effort. Sometime it seems that none of us know enough often enough. The industry environment, the technologies, the business models and needs, are all moving targets. It's working out fine, but it is amazing how much new there is to know and succeed with.

        Sometimes I wonder if the complexity, expense (including expenses to defend yourself after you've succeeded in a patent or other IP ownership) and 'broken-ness' of the patent/trademark/copyright isn't really a very good component in explaining the success of open source projects.

        Note on the original post in thread:

        Advice, passing conversation and reading various publications have led others and myself to think the following about intellectual property protections:

        - Overall design, meaning the look and feel, may fall under "trade dress" protections.
        - We assume that content is owned by the author.
        - Our original content is owned by us. We assume that if we rewrite someone else's writing, by and large we're protected, since we wrote it. However, this is highly suspect and present some risk, as well as damage to one's honor...

        - Owning the HTML-based presentation on a web site probably falls under 'trade dress' as above, but the configuration and patterns within the HTML structure are simply usage of a published standard and not protectable.

        - Back-end code we've written to support any interface, web or not, is ours.

        - Whether a web page is 'one object' and copyright-able could be debatable. If it contains the works of others, appropriate attributions must be given, and in many cases, permission to use must be obtained (research 'fair use').

        Is any of this useful? I dunno. YMMV. It's certainly not any kind of useful advice, except to maybe take a stab at pointing towards other research to do. Hope it helps though.

(ichimunki) Re: A question of copyright law an how it affects web templates
by ichimunki (Priest) on Feb 18, 2002 at 20:43 UTC
    Assuming you are a citizen of the United States, speaking about web sites hosted and viewed from within those States, the best source for copyright information is probably For cases involving other countries, or more than one country, I can be of no assistance. :)

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