Blogs and newsletters are hungry animals, always clamoring for more articles and more information. Where else to get information to feed your blog or newsletter than on the Internet? After all it's public, for everyone to read.
But this is where it gets sticky because it is NOT for everyone to use. It is protected by copyright laws that determine the ownership of a particular piece of work and how it may be used.
"But it's on the Internet. It's in the public domain and I can use it." Not necessarily true! "Public domain" is not a place. It is a specific legal term that refers to content that's old enough for its copyright protection to have expired or for some other reason does not fulfil the conditions to be protected by copyright. In that case anyone can use it. The fact that a work is publicly available does not mean it is in the "public domain."
If the copyright is still valid, you need permission to use someone else's work. Blithely lifting chunks of someone else's work off the web and using them without permission is violation of the law.
The situation is sweetened a bit by the "fair use" doctrine that allows you to use small portions of someone else's work. This part is tricky because of varying definitions of what constitutes "fair use." It may be OK to use a single quote from someone's work, and in some cases it may be OK to use a whole paragraph. An intellectual property (IP) attorney can help you determine what is "fair use" in a particular situation.
Often you'll see a notice at the end of an article saying it's OK to publish the article, IF you include certain information about the author. In this case the author has given you permission in advance to use his/her work, provided you agree to the conditions.
Check the copyright before you publish someone else's words. Get permission if you have to. If in doubt, consult an attorney who specializes in intellectual property.
For more information on this complicated topic you can visit the official government site at http://www.copyright.gov. It's a lot of legalese: you may also need an attorney to interpret it for you but it's well worth spending a few dollars to make sure you stay on the right side of the law. You can find lots of information in more accessible language on htp://www.nolo.com, the website of a publisher of legal books, software and forms.
Copyright 2010 Maggie Dennison