Online law resources

These online law resources have been chosen to help you to research, at a general level, some of the more important legal issues affecting websites and the internet.

They focus on English and EU law issues, and cover the following subjects: accessibility, copyright, criminal law, data protection, defamation, domain names, ecommerce law, emarketing law and trade marks.

Accessibility

Accessibility remains a hot topic for UK webmasters. It can be difficult, however, to know how far your legal obligations really extend.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 make it illegal for service providers to discriminate against a disabled person. Service providers must make "reasonable adjustments" to the way in which services are offered to enable the disabled to use them.

If you operate a commercial website which is inaccessible to the disabled, you could be be sued as a result, and damages could be awarded against you.

Websites should be designed to avoid liability under the Act; there is a wealth of guidance online about how this should be done.

Copyright

The law of copyright protects certain classes of creative endeavour. Protected works are collectively termed "copyright works". If there is one area of law that webmasters need to come to terms with, it's copyright law.

The online law of copyright is the same as the off-line law. The website is conceptualised in English law as a collection of copyright works, legally distinct even if actually intermingled. Literary copyright protects website text, as well as HTML and program code; artistic copyright protects images and photos; musical copyright and sound recording copyright protect music hosted on a site; and copyright or database right (a close relative of copyright) may protect datasets of database-backed sites. The complexity of copyright protection in a single website can be daunting.

The centrepiece of UK copyright legislation is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This statute sets out details of when copyright arises, who owns copyright, how copyright can be transferred, and when copyright may be infringed. It is well drafted, and the starting point for research into most practical questions of UK copyright law.

Primary online law resources:

Secondary online law resources:

Tools:

  • Creative Commons - A range of creative commons licences are available from this site.
  • Copyscape - A free tool to search for potentially infringing copies of web pages. 

Criminal law

The criminal law relating to print publications applies in much the same way to online publications. As you might expect, criminal law usually only intervenes in the case of extreme publications of one sort or another.

  • Contempt of Court - An introductory guide to the impact of contempt laws on freedom of expression, from Liberty's website at yourrights.org.uk.
  • Obscenity - Liberty's guide to the offence of obscenity.
  • Indecency - Liberty's guide to the offence of indecency.
  • Racial Hatred - Liberty's guide to the offence of inciting or stirring up racial hatred.
  • Blasphemy - Liberty's guide to the obsolescent offence of blasphemy.

Data protection

The Data Protection Act 1998 forms, with its retinue of subordinate regulations, an opaque and often tedious body of law. Nonetheless, it forms an important part of the online law. According to the Information Commissioner: "the Data Protection Act gives individuals the right to know what information is held about them, and it provides a framework to ensure that personal information is handled properly".

Data protection law is the cause behind the ubiquitous website privacy policy or statement. The main purpose of these statements is to fulfil the information disclosure requirements of the 1998 Act.

Defamation

The UK is notorious as a claimant-friendly jurisdiction for bringing libel proceedings. In other words, you should be careful what you write (or allow others to write) on your website.

The law of defamation is all about reputation, and the protection of reputation. Slander is concerned with the spoken word, libel with the written word. Note that the law of defamation protects both individuals and companies.

A related cause of action, malicious falsehood, protects individuals and companies against false, malicious statements which cause them loss.

Domain names

The substance of domain name law is closely related to the law of trade marks; but its form is quite different.

The domain name dispute procedure has been largely privatised by means of the Uniform Domain Name Disputes Resolution Policy (known as the UDRP) and related systems of domain name arbitration. The vast majority of domain name disputes are, as a result of this privatisation, decided through independent arbitration bodies such as the WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center in Geneva, or the National Arbitration Forum in the US.

The starting point for research into questions of domain name law will largely depend upon the extension of the domain name in issue. Generic top level domain disputes (i.e. those concerning .com, .net, .org etc domains) are most commonly adjudicated under the UDRP. UK country code domain disputes (i.e. .uk disputes) are adjudicated through Nominet's Dispute Resolution Service.

E-commerce law

 The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 govern the conduct of electronic commerce in the UK. They are a key part of our online law and impact many online activities.

That said, e-commerce law is about much more than the 2002 Regulations. The English law of contract governs online as well as offline contracting. The key tenets of contract law are to be found in the long history of judgments and decisions by the courts, supplemented by legislation such as the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 and the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999.

E-marketing law

The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 regulate direct electronic marketing in the UK. This EU-based legislation must be read in conjunction with data protection law, which regulates the use of personal data (which can include email addresses). The two bodies of law are not always consistent.

Trade marks

Trade marks law concerns itself with the commercial use of "signs" (such as names, logos, badges, and so on) which designate the origin of goods and services, and the exploitation and protection of those registered trade mark rights. However, the law also protects unregistered trade marks. In English law, unregistered trade marks are protected under the law of "passing off".

The most important piece of UK legislation relating to trade mark is the Trade Marks Act 1994. Passing off is a right at common law: it has not been codified in statute.

Comments

Great information and links, we do need more web developers to follow the guidlelines on accessibility. If thought about initially on any site build, they are not hard to impliment.

Benefits:

  • Page must be to W3C Standards to pass.
  • Additional Content for SEO.
  • Shows your company is professional and attention to detail is good.
  • Allows million more to see your products and services.
  • Primarily - Its the right thing to do!

Its a win-win situation for all good developers.

Great article.

Darren Candler - Metadas Media

Thanks for this list - a very useful source for research. From our experience of running a sizeable business information site ourselves, many firms are finding that the law is taking some time to catch up with the times. The recent 'cookie' regulations are a great example -  'relaxed' at the last minute when it was clear that most businesses had no intention of abiding by them (or were unable to do so / didn't know about the proposals in the first place). All the best, James Leckie (Director - Bytestart).

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