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Guide to good practices for WWW authors

Abiding by the law

The law of the land applies to electronic material in much the same way as it does to traditional methods of publication. Laws relating to defamation, intellectual property, obscenity, etc. apply equally to all methods of publication. In theory though, electronic publication via the WWW is likely to be more restricted and proscribed because the material is published internationally and may be judged by the laws of many countries. At home, there are further layers of regulation for WWW authors to be aware of. The use of the WWW is proscribed by the acceptable use policy of the relevant network, for instance, the UK Higher Education Community needs to conform to the JANET Acceptable Use Policy.

Then within institutions, there is likely to be an institutional policy relating to the provision of information on local systems. This may include precise regulations and guidelines for local Web services. It is good practice for WWW authors to be aware of the relevant national laws and of the network and institutional regulations applicable to their Web services and to abide by them.

The main legal areas for WWW authors to consider are:


While the law may be a little murky in the area of cases which cross national boundaries, you can stay safely within all laws by avoiding anything faintly libellous on your Web pages. If you are responsible for statements which may damage the reputation of others, you may be taken to court, but not only that, your institution is also likely to be held responsible for any libellous statements on systems under its control. Institutions may seek to cover themselves by imposing controls on WWW authors using their systems, but whatever the institutional policy, the initial responsibility for a page lies with the author. Using a Web page to make damaging or untruthful statements about others is decidedly bad practice and an irresponsible use of the medium.

Don't say anything to harm the reputation of others.

Back to legal areas to consider.


When it comes to abiding by the law, copyright is the most fraught area for most WWW authors. The Internet was built on a tradition of open and free or almost-free exchange. Internet users are accustomed to being able to take and use a file here, an image there, perhaps with the author's permission, perhaps not. Now that the scope of the Internet has broadened, these cosy informal (and illegal) arrangements are subject to scrutiny, particularly from copyright owners or their legal representatives keen on establishing their rights. Like authors of conventional published works, electronic authors too have intellectual property rights, and all WWW authors need to exercise care in borrowing from others. Copyright applies to text, sound, movie files, graphics, photographs, computer programs, etc.

Copyright does apply to WWW pages.

Basically, the copyright of any material on a Web page belongs to the author/publisher or the originating institution. There are two exceptions:

The default is that copyright belongs to the author/publisher.

If WWW authors wish to copy or adapt someone else's material which is not in the public domain, they must obtain consent from the author or publisher. This applies to text, images, and other types of files. In the case of multimedia works, e.g. if an author wanted to make available on a Web page an excerpt from a movie of a performance, obtaining permissions becomes a much more extensive and complicated process, involving performers and others.

One of the most common Web borrowings is the use of someone else's HTML markup as a starting point for a personal home page. In fact it is often recommended by support staff and trainers. Depending on the extent of the borrowing, a brief permission request might be a good idea as well as a polite tribute to the original author for the use of their ideas.

Obtain consent if you want to use others' material.

WWW authors/publishers need also to be aware of their own intellectual property rights. If they are happy to place their material in the public domain, but expect an attribution statement if the work is used, then a statement to this effect should be included with the material. But be aware that placing something in the public domain cedes over all rights to it, and no conditions which you might attach to its use are strictly legally binding.

Authors wanting to maintain the copyright on their material can stress their claim by adding on each page a copyright statement using the symbol, but this is not guaranteed to deter all would-be borrowers.

Your Web pages are your property (or your institution's) unless you give them away.

Back to legal areas to consider.


The mass media would have us believe that one of the major uses of the Internet is for the dissemination of computer pornography, and a few prosecutions in this area have been given considerable publicity. It does academic and research institutions little good to add substance to this claim, and if institutions have a WWW policy, it is likely to state that their systems should not be used for the dissemination of pornographic material.

Such restrictive policies are backed up by the conditions imposed by the JANET network management. The JANET Acceptable Use Policy states that JANET may not be used for:

the creation or transmission (other than for properly supervised and lawful research purposes) of any offensive, obscene or indecent images, data or other material.

Compounding these formal curbs is the UK law relating to obscene publications which is currently being rewritten to specifically cover computer publication.

At a personal level, offensive and obscene material is very likely to offend many users (those people whom your Web page is for).

Obscene and pornographic material is likely to be unacceptable legally and institutionally, as well as offensive to the average Web user.

Back to legal areas to consider.

Personal data

If Web authors seek to publish personal details about someone, they need to consider the implications. Would the person want these details about themselves published? It's good practice to obtain permission first.

Obtain permission before including personal information or a photograph.

Authors may also need to be aware of the provisions of legislation protecting personal information, particularly if they are providing a database of personal information. In the UK, the Data Protection Act may require them to register with the Data Protection Registrar. The Act allows individuals to check information recorded on computer relating to them and imposes certain conditions on the data which can be kept.

Be aware that personal information is protected by legislation.

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February 1996

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