Many things can be protected by a copyright: text, images, photographs, videos. But can a website be protected by a copyright?
While “website” is not currently a category of intellectual property recognized by the US Copyright Office, it’s made up of elements that are: text, images, photographs, videos.
Let’s look at what can and cannot be done with copyrights and websites.
1. Anything you write is automatically protected by a copyright (with or without an official registration).
Years ago, copyright law required certain actions in order to enjoy copyright protection: publication, for example, or affixing a copyright symbol to the work. But no longer.These days, all you have to do to officially own the copyright to your own words, pictures, or design is to create it (or have it created on behalf of your business). As long as it physically or digitally exists, you own the copyright.
The Copyright Office says: “No publication or registration or other action in the Copyright Office is required to secure copyright” (“Copyright Basics,” under “How to Secure a Copyright”).
What this means for your website: Neither a copyright notice nor an official copyright registration is necessary in order for you to legally own the content of your website, as long as that content exists.
2. There are, however, benefits to an official US Copyright Office registration.
While it is not required, it’s often a good idea to officially register your copyright.
The Copyright Office says: “Registration establishes a public record of the copyright claim.” If someone is using your blog posts without your permission, anyone might be able to look up the record with the USCO and determine who really owns the material.
The Copyright Office says: “Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration is necessary for works of U.S. origin.” Registration can happen at any time in the future—but, as discussed below, there is a persuasive reason to register sooner rather than later.
The Copyright Office says: “If registration is made within three months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney’s fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions” (“Copyright Basics, under “Copyright Registration”). Legal fees aren’t cheap; if you don’t have a registration on file within three months and you bring someone to court, regardless of the outcome, your legal fees come out of your own business’s coffers.
What this means for your website: Generally, just writing your website’s content is enough to protect it. It’s up to your business, along with the advice of your legal counsel, to determine whether you want to officially register a copyright (if you will vigorously protect your
3. Copyrights do not protect unwritten website content, including blog posts.
Quick background on intellectual property: Patents and trademarks are two other types of intellectual property protection, each with its own sphere of influence; copyrights, however, specifically protect the unauthorized use of works of “original authorship” that have been “fixed in a tangible medium”—a description that includes website content like photos, videos, and text.The Copyright Office says: “Copyright protects ‘original works of authorship’ that are fixed in a tangible form of expression” (“Copyright Basics,” under “What Works Are Protected?”).
In addition, ideas or concepts are also ineligible for this type of protection. The mere idea of a blog post, even a written summary, does not automatically protect the unfinished project. Summaries can be protected, of course, but the words used in the summary itself are protected—not the underlying idea.
The Copyright Office says: “Several categories of material are generally not eligible for federal copyright protection [including] ideas . . . concepts” (“Copyright Basics,” under “What Is Not Protected by Copyright?”).
What this means for your website: Don’t worry about protecting material you haven’t even written yet—you can’t. Just worry about understanding your intellectual property rights once the material does exist.
4. Registering a domain name with the USCO does not protect the content on the website.
In my copyrighting experiences, I’ve found that a common misunderstanding about copyrighting websites is that the business must simply register its domain name with the copyright in order to protect anything, present or future, published there.
In fact, there are a few inaccuracies with this. The first: Names, titles, and short phrases cannot be protected by a copyright. This includes domain names.
The second inaccuracy has been described in the previous points: without the content itself, the US Copyright has nothing to publish, and you do not inherit your automatic copyrights until you create the work itself.
What this means for your website: It’s clear by now that your content needs to exist before you protect it; and as soon as it exists, it’s protected. It’s also clear that additional benefits are available if you officially register your copyrights within three months.
But, as far as your domain name, it may be eligible for trademark protection, if not copyright protection.
[Copyright your business website today!]