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If Alice is a photographer, she takes a photo, owns the copyright and posts it on her public website, then Bob links to that photo on his public website, is he infringing on her copyright? Does it matter if the link is an <a> vs an <img>? To be clear, his server is not serving the image, only HTML that directs browsers to the image.

Alternatively, consider the following cases.

  • Clickable link to a page on Alice's site that contains the image
  • Clickable link directly to the image
  • Clickable link directly to the image with a note suggesting that users use a plugin like Hover Zoom (this allows the user to hover her mouse pointer over the link and see a preview of the image without leaving the current page)
  • Clickable link to the image and Bob makes his own plugin that changes the link into a displayed image
  • Embedding the image so that it displays on Bob's page, but is still served from Alice's server
  • Embedding the image and serving it from Bob's server

I am pretty sure that the first scenario is okay and that the last one is not, but at what point does Bob cross the line?


This question is very similar, but is more focused on iframes and does not quite address my question:

Can you be accused of hotlinking/copyright violation if you use an iframe?

What if Bob only posted a thumbnail version of the image? Is that fair use or does he have to be a search engine? If it is fair use, how much smaller does it have to bee?

Can Google legally host images for its search results without permission?

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    When is it illegal? When a judge doesn't understand how links work. :P – cHao Mar 21 '18 at 18:06
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    In what way does that answer, especially the cited ruling, not answer the issues that you raise? – user6726 Mar 21 '18 at 18:17
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    @user6726 I am trying to create as granular of a scale as possible to demonstrate the minimal difference between different technical operations. The cited case is only one particular point on the scale and according to apsillers answer appears to be in "fundamental disagreement" with the other case. – Benjamin Cuningham Mar 21 '18 at 19:00
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    @user6726 Possibly. Perhaps a better way of asking the question would be, "some of these are legal and some are not; why? What is the differentiating feature between two actions that are extremely similar?" Also, thank you for reminding me that without precedent, some of these specific scenarios are simply unknowable as to their legality. I really appreciate your perspective. – Benjamin Cuningham Mar 21 '18 at 21:50
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    All but one currently valid precedent holds that linking is not copying. An outlier case is currently being litigated in a circuit appellate court. Embedding can be muddier. – ohwilleke Mar 22 '18 at 5:23

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