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Newsgroups pose an interesting problem from a copyright perspective in that they contain elements of email (sending a message to other people) and Web pages (publishing a message for all netizens to see). This section deals with the issue of copying newsgroup messages as opposed to the copying of news articles into newsgroup messages . Many people who post to newsgroups never give a second thought as to the ultimate fate of their message. On the other hand, some people are very sensitive about who sees, and what happens to, their messages. And then there are those who would just as soon have the planet spammed with their messages. With all of these different expectations attached to people's messages, it behooves netizens to understand the rules of the road and state their expectations accordingly.

Copyright Protection of Posts

Let's say that you are reading the newsgroup physics.brilliant.snob when in a flash of insight you discover the secret to free energy. Eager to memorialize this discovery, you compose the following message:

All that has been said in this newsgroup is ultimately as nourishing to the scientific appetite as a water molecule with a missing proton. The formula x = pi / $C0FFEE sublimely resolves all blemishes from the landscape of particle physics.

There it is - your baby. You sweated over your keyboard for six hours to craft two pithy sentences that simultaneously puts down your equally arrogant colleagues and bestows upon the world the secret to free energy. You can now send your baby out to the physics.brilliant.snob newsgroup secure in the knowledge that it is protected by copyright. As such, it is legally protected from indiscriminate copying to newspapers, magazines, and even the sanrio.hello.kitty newsgroup.

But if your message is posted there for all 30 million netsurfers to see, what's the problem with reposting it to another newsgroup? Well, posting such a virulent insult in sanrio.hello.kitty may offend the subscribers of that newsgroup. They may think that you posted it there and that you were referring to them, thereby causing the subscribers of that newsgroup to hold you in disdain. Also, you may feel that the subscribers of sanrio.hello.kitty are simply unworthy of the secret to free energy, and you would therefore just as soon not have them reading it. Whatever your reason, its irrelevant - you control the copyright, and its your prerogative.

Retransmitting Information

Suppose someone reads your post in the physics newsgroup and then posts the following message in the sanrio.hello.kitty newsgroup:

I heard in the physics newsgroup that most of the people who post are stupid and that the secret to free energy is: x = pi / $C0FFEE.

This message contains all of the information contained in the original post. Is this copyright infringement? It is not, because copyright only protects the expression of an idea, and not the idea itself. Consequently, a retransmission of the ideas, facts, or even conjectures (which are not themselves copyrightable elements) in the retransmitter's own words does not constitute a copyright infringement, and is itself as protected by copyright as the original posting. From a legal standpoint, this is the preferred method for information to propagate across the net.

Implied License

There is an evolving theory of implied license that keeps popping up in Internet related legal issues. In the context of postings to newsgroups, one source proposes an implied license theory whereby in committing the act of posting to a newsgroup, you are in fact granting an implied license to other people to repost your message in the following circumstances:

  • copying a message from one message area to another message area on the same system.
  • copying a message from one forum to other similar forums on the same conferencing system.

If you are in fact toying with the idea of reposting a message from a newsgroup, keep in mind that the following characteristics will be taken in account when determining whether or not you have acted within the purview of the implied license:

  • whether the copied message will reach a different audience
  • whether the copied message is being introduced to different distribution systems

Actual License

There are those who would like their messages spread throughout the land, and the copyright minded of them will so state in their message with some statement to the effect:

This message may be freely copied, distributed or otherwise retransmitted.

By inserting this statement into the message or in the signature line, has this person put the message into the public domain? Not quite, a grant to the public domain must be explicit. However, the author has granted a pretty liberal license that has a similar effect. Sometimes people will place conditions on any redistribution. This is simply a more restrictive license and can contain any provisions that the author deems appropriate. Common conditions of such licenses seen on the net include provisions that the person redistributing the message cannot do so for personal gain; that it must be circulated in its entirety, that it cannot be used out of context, or that it cannot be edited or reformatted.