Tom brought up the question of whether it’s necessary to register copyright for websites today, and it’s an interesting one — but in a way it’s also a trick question. Any creative work is automatically under copyright. This has been true for more than a quarter of a century. So your website is protected under copyright laws as soon as you launch it, whether you actually register the copyright or not. You don’t need to copyright your website to protect it.
There are still some interesting points to consider, though.
Could you win a court case over copyright?
While copyright protection is automatically extended to any creative work, it is possible that using a copyright notice or registering your copyright for your website could help you out if a case went to court. For example, that copyright notice in your website’s footer could keep someone from claiming that they didn’t realize the website was under copyright.
Section 411(a) of the Copyright Code, affirmed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, says that you can’t sue someone for copyright infringement unless the copyright has been registered. However, you can issue cease and desist warnings, make official complaints, and charge people who use your work without your permission. If someone’s use of your website somehow causes your business harm, you can sue. It’s just the simple lawsuit for copyright infringement that requires you to have registered your copyright. If you plan to sue someone for infringement even if you suffer no harm, you should register your copyright within three months of launching your website.
Who owns the copyright of your website?
Automatic copyright protection is for the creator of the website. If your website is “work for hire” — that is, you paid for it — then you should have the copyright. However, unless the folks who built the site are your employees, you need to make sure that ownership of the site is clear. We have this information in our standard contract, making certain that the owner of the website is also the owner of the copyright for the website.
If you use a monthly service for your website, chances are good that you don’t own the copyright. If you stop paying your hosting costs, you will have nothing left and will have to start over. If you own the copyright, though, you can use all the content if you get a redesign and you can also re-use the design if you choose to update the website or transfer it to a new platform while keeping the original design.
If you’re not sure who owns the copyright of your website, check your contract and make sure. If you’re hiring a web design firm, make sure you determine who will own the copyright before you sign that contract.
What does copyright protection mean in real life?
One of the many things that the internet has done is to make plagiarism easier than ever. Copy and paste means you don’t even have to break out a pen to steal someone’s work. As a college teacher, I saw the consequences of that every semester.
But we also had a direct experience with copyright violation. Jay noticed that someone had taken a logo he designed for a website, altered it slightly, and used it on Facebook. We made an official complaint. While Facebook agreed that the thieves in question had indeed stolen our work, they said we weren’t being harmed in any way. The thieves had 37 likes. We should get over it.
If we had registered copyright of the logo or the website, presumably we could have sued the thieves, but chances are good that the court would also not have been too excited about a Facebook fan page with 37 Likes. A quick scouring of cases about website copyright turned up multiple cases in which lawsuits failed because no financial harm had been done by the copyright violators.
Is it worth $35 to register the copyright for your website? We’d say it depends how much you care about your potential day in court, not how much you care about your website.