Understanding Copyright Basics for Your Website

Copyright Basics

Understanding the basics of copyright is important when planning your website content, including both text and images. Before we dive into copyright and web design lets take a step back and understand what a copyright is. Copyright is a form of protection under the U.S. Constitution for original works of authorship, fixed within a tangible medium. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works. A copyright allows anyone to create a creative work and call it their own. In the United States a copyright lasts the entire life of the author plus 70 years. This rule applies to works you create for yourself. Work for hire copyright is slightly different. As a web designer I pass that copyright to the client, meaning after a website is created and payment is exchanged the client now owns the full rights to the design and content. A work for hire copyright last 120 years after it was created or 95 years after it is released to the public, whichever comes first.

How to Create a Copyright

The act of creating a copyright is actually very simple. If I grab a blank piece of paper and drawn a smiley face stick figure I can say its copyrighted. It’s literally that simple, if you create something it belongs to you and you own the copyright as long as it is something tangible. You can’t copyright an idea unless it is integrated into something someone can see. If I have an idea for a great website I can’t declare it as copyrighted until I actually produce the website in a public forum. You do not have to register a copyright with the US Government when it is created, you will however have to register if you wish to bring a lawsuit against someone for copyright infringement. Registration outside of infringement is voluntary although many people choose to register to obtain a certificate and have their copyright recorded on the pubic record.


What You Can Copyright

Any kind of original content including articles, photos, advertisements, drawings, videos, code and custom layouts. Basically all elements of building the website can fall under your copyright.  Idea’s however can not be copyrighted. Also titles and slogans and your company name cannot be copyrighted. They can however be trademarked so you should consider looking into trademark law or speak with a lawyer on areas of your website which will not fall under copyright law but may afford additional protection.  For purposes of this article we will stick with the basic elements of a website which are copyrightable with one big exceptions, domain names cannot be copyrighted. Depending on the subject of your website content may fall into some gray areas of the law. For example, if you are food service provide or chef any recipes you post are not copyrightable. Your website design, images and other content certainly are but the recipes themselves are not. If you have questions on specific content on your website and whether or not you can classify it under a general website copyright I would check out copyright.gov which has pdf downloads available of various sections of the US Copyright Law.

Understanding Fair Use

If you see your work being used on the web without your permissions can you immediately send a cease-and-desist letter to the site owner? In some cases yes, but not always.  Fair Use is an exception to copyright law which lets individuals make use of your original work without your permissions. Schools for example can use copyrighted material for educational and teaching purposes. The press is another great example. Images and writings by individuals you see on news segments are all covered under fair use. Google would not exist is there was no fair use protection under copyright law.  As you build content for your website you should be aware that at some point your content, images, etc. could be used for educational purposes or news stories without your permission. So before you take action against a website or institution for “stealing” your work be sure you fully understand the purpose in which your copyrighted material was republished.

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