Myth #09: On the Internet, everything is free.
Kurt M. Saunders

Myth: If something is on the Internet, it must be free and in the public domain. Many users hold a false presumption that online media and content is not copyright protected. For others, the belief is subconscious, leading them to copy, share, or adapt content without first considering that they may need authorization by the copyright owner to do so.


Busted: There appear to be two bases for the belief that content found in the Internet is free, or not protected by copyright law, both of which are interrelated. The first basis is technological. The Internet greatly reduces the effective cost of copying, making it easy and inexpensive to access, reproduce, transfer, and manipulate content. Users can reproduce and transfer numerous copies to numerous recipients worldwide instantaneously. The second basis is philosophical and is tersely expressed by the declaration: “Information wants to be free.” (#48) The statement is attributed to Stewart Brand at the first Hackers Conference in 1984 and it became a rallying cry of the cyberpunk movement (Whole Earth Review (1985), 49). In short, it expresses the belief that the Internet content is unsuited to copyright and other proprietary restraints. In 1996, John Perry Barlow, an early Internet pioneer and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, reiterated this philosophy by proclaiming in his “Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace”: “Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and content do not apply to us. They are based on matter. There is no matter here.”

However, as with any other original work of authorship, most content found on the Internet is protected by copyright. This includes software, images, text, videos, music, charts, diagrams, as well as postings to social media and blogs. None of these are automatically in the public domain merely because they are posted or displayed online. Copyright protection extends to expressions, including computer programs, but not to ideas, procedures, methods of operation, or mathematical concepts.

According to the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Agreement (TRIPS), binding on all member countries of the World Trade Organization, the minimum term of protection is the life of the author plus no less than 50 years, although some members, like the United States and the European Union countries, extend the post mortem term to 70 years. When the copyright term expires, the work enters the public domain, which means that it is free for anyone to use. Alternatively, some authors choose to dedicate their work to the public domain. By doing so, they renounce any right to collect royalties when others use the work. There are several cooperative models that allow authors to surrender certain rights or license their content with few or no limitations, such as the Creative Commons network and the open source movement for software.


Truth: Most content on the Internet is protected by copyright and is not in the public domain or free to use, copy, adapt, or publicly display, perform, or distribute without a license from the copyright owner. Only when the author dedicates the work to the public domain is the content free to use without liability for infringement.


Source: Understanding Copyright and Related Rights, World Intellectual Property Organization (2016),; Kurt M. Saunders, Intellectual Property Law: Legal Aspects of Innovation and Competition (St. Paul, MN: West Academic, 2016).