How to Copyright a Website to Protect It
Your business website is a valuable asset for marketing, sales, and customer service power, and like other property in your business, you need to protect it. In this article, we'll look at the parts that make up a website and how to copyright all of these pieces. We'll start with the content of your website as the main thing you want to protect, then include protecting your domain name, your website's logo and graphics, and the images on your website.
Can You Copyright Your Website?
Your business website is considered to be intellectual property, like a trademark or a patent. All types of intellectual property can be protected, and the way you protect website content is by copyrighting it. You should also protect your domain name, the graphics on your website (your business logo), and all the images on your website.
Copyright protection is only for original works fixed in a tangible means of expression, like a website. The work must be original, owned by the applicant, and it must be clearly described.
So, what's a website? A website is defined by the U.S. Copyright Office as
"a webpage or set of interconnected webpages, including a homepage, located on the same computer or server (i.e., fixed together on that computer or server), and prepared and maintained as a collection of information by a person, group, or organization."
What Is Copyrighted on a Website?
Copyright protection on a website is for the content on that site.
The U.S. Copyright Office says content is "material that is perceptible to the users of a particular website." This content includes just about everything on the site, including:
- news articles
- literature (fiction or non-fiction writing), blog writing, for example
- audio (a podcast, for example)
Remember that these pieces of content must be original.
Another important note: You can only copyright what's already on a website. The U.S. Copyright Office (in reply to an email I sent them) says:
Keep in mind that the registration extends only to the content presented with the registration. Any content created later to be added to the website, or any updates to the website, would require its own registration.
What Can I NOT Copyright on a Website?
Links to other websites don't reside on your website and these are not copyrightable, but internal links from one page on your site to another are part of your website's copyright.
You can't copyright work that is in the public domain (owned by no one).
User-generated content is content that users put on your website, like comments and reviews. This content is owned by the users, and they own the copyright to their contributions.
The Copyright Office also lists the following as not copyrightable:
- Ideas, such as plans for future websites.
- Functional design elements.
- Domain names and hypertext links.
- The layout, format, or “look and feel” of a website.
- Common, unoriginal material, such as names, icons, or familiar symbols.
Who Owns the Website?
Let's say you hire someone to create your business website.
You are paying that person to do the work, so that's considered work for hire. The person doing the work is an independent contractor hired by your company.
It's important to distinguish between an employee of your company who writes content for a website and an independent contractor who writes this content. The employee doesn't own the content; your company does. But the independent contractor does own the content, and you should get an agreement with the contractor to give your company an exclusive license to use the content on your website.
Be sure your business owns not only the website content, including graphics and images. Your company should also own the domain name. Buy the domain name under your own business from a reputable domain registration service.
Having an outside hosting company for your website doesn't affect yo ur copyright.
Your hosting company (the company whose server your website resides with) doesn't have to be owned by you, but you should still back up all of your website data in case your hosting company server crashes or some other accident destroys your website's data.
How to Copyright Your Website
There are a lot of myths about copyright protection. While it's true that you have automatic copyright protection the minute the website content is put up before the public, it's smart to do two things:
- Put a copyright notice on every page of your website, including the year. The best way to do this is to have a footer on every page that says "Copyright [date] [company name]." And be sure to update the year regularly. Some businesses include all the years of copyright protection, as in "Copyright 2010-2017 XYZ Company."
- Register your copyright. You can easily register a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Your website is registered under the category "other digital content." The copyright for a website is complicated; you may want an attorney to help you, or contact the U.S. Copyright Office.
What If I Don't Copyright My Website?
Since your website is ever-changing, and you are probably adding content to it all the time, you may not want to register the copyright. You still have protection by putting the copyright notice on your website. Be sure to keep the year on the copyright notice up to date and make sure it shows on all pages.
Is a Blog a Website?
A blog is a type of website, with original content being added by you or by others working for your business, and the blog can be copyright protected in the same way and in the same category as a website.
Don't Want to Lose Your Copyright? Defend it!
If you want to protect your website's copyright, you will need to be vigilant.
- Register the copyright for your website
- Monitor plagiarism by searching for copycats.
- Pursue plagiarism with "cease and desist" letters and other actions.
In addition to protecting your website content by copyrighting here, there are some other protections you should consider, for other parts of your business website.
Protecting Your Domain Name
A domain name is a unique identifier for a website on the internet. The domain name has the form "http://www.domainname.extension," like "http://www.domainanonymous.com." A domain name is unique; none can be duplicated. When you register your domain name, you get an exclusive name.
BUT, notice that a domain name can be the same but have a different extension. For example, there can be "domainanonymous.com," "doomainanonymous.net," "domainanonymous.biz," or "domainanonymous.info."
Buying the ".com" domain name leaves the other extensions open to be taken by others. Someone could buy "domainanonymous.biz" and start drawing potential customers away from you. If you want to protect your domain name from copycats, you may want to buy some of the most common extensions from a domain registration service and forward them to your main domain name.
Protecting Your Domain Graphics and Logo
The "look" of your domain name is separate from the content. This look may include a graphic like the famous Amazon arrow or Google's multicolored "G." If you want to protect your website's logo, you will need to register it as a trademark or service mark.
Protecting the Images on Your Website
If you put original images on your website, you may want to copyright them separately. If you use images, be sure your use is not plagiarism.
In short, you can protect your original website content by adding copyright notices to each page, but it's also a good idea to register your copyright. If your site is complex or includes multiple authors, look for a good intellectual property attorney to help you with copyright issues.
For More Information on Website Copyright
If you would like to know more of the details of how to copyright a website, see this document on websites and website copyright from the U.S. Copyright Department.