When Do I Need a Copyright Notice?

Websites are in an interesting position when it comes to copyright law. With so many of the basic building blocks of a website (themes, plugins, stock photography, and even some of the coding) owned by others, are websites even considered to be copyright-protected works?

The answer to that is "yes." So long as your website's content is yours and yours alone, you own the complete rights to it from the moment it is created.

Now what about copyright notices? Do all websites need those? The answer to those questions are a little more complicated.

A Brief History of Copyright Notice Law

Before we start, let's clarify something. When we talk about copyright notices, we're not talking about copyright registration.

  • "Copyright" is your right to the work you've created.
  • "Copyright registration" is the securing of federal rights to your work, which you can do at the Copyright.gov.
  • "Copyright notices" are the actual lines of print you place on your website to let others know the date and owner of the copyright.

While we've previously covered the international history of copyright law in our Ultimate Guide to Copyright, it's worth taking a quick glance over the history of US copyright law as it shows the general trend.

The Copyright Act of 1790

  • George Washington signed the first copyright law into effect on May 13, 1790.
  • This law gave authors the right to establish ownership over books, maps, and charts for 14 years.
  • In order to secure protection, authors had to file for a copyright registration.

The Copyright Act of 1909

  • President Theodore Roosevelt was unsatisfied with the restrictive, incomplete, and oftentimes unclear copyright law of 1790.
  • All original work that was published, registered, and included a copyright notice were to be protected by the federal law for 28 years.

The Copyright Act of 1976

  • In addition to including provisions for new types of media like motion pictures, sound recordings, and architecture, this law also sought to provide copyright owners with more clearly stated rules for the terms of ownership (which now lasted through the life of the author, plus 50 years).
  • One of those new definitions stated that copyright owners had five years to rectify a missing or erroneous copyright notice. Otherwise, the work would enter the public domain.

The Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988

  • The United States ratified this law almost 100 years after it was created in Switzerland.
  • There were massive changes introduced by this law, the most important of which was that copyright registration and notices were no longer necessary for establishing ownership and protection.

With each new iteration of the law, the government extended copyright lengths and made the process of securing those rights easier. As it stands today, a copyright notice is no longer necessary in order to claim ownership.

So with that being the case, why even go to the trouble of adding one to your website?

Why Have a Copyright Notice?

While your website does not need a copyright notice, you may still want to have one:

  • A copyright notice provides visible proof that you are the owner of your website.
  • You cannot take legal action against someone who has stolen (or copied) your work without an official notice.
  • If your website contains material of great value, you'll want that extra layer of protection.
  • If you've gone to the trouble of registering your website with the government, then you'll need to display a copyright notice on your site.

How to Use Copyright Notices

Copyright notices are very simple in structure and only require three pieces of information:

  1. The © symbol
  2. The year of publication
  3. The copyright owner.

Some people also choose to include the words "Copyright" or "All Rights Reserved," but that's not really necessary.

What is necessary, however, is that all three pieces of info are correct. If anything should be wrong in that notice and you attempt to sue someone for stealing your work, they may be able to claim innocent infringement (PDF) due to being misled by the erroneous (or missing) copyright notice.

Placing the Copyright on Your Site

Copyright notices — regardless of the type of work on which they appear — must always be clearly and permanently displayed. When it comes to websites, the most common place to put the notice is in the footer.

Some website owners also prefer to link a legal rights and terms of use page to the notice in the footer. This way, there can be no question as to who owns the rights to the content.

If you'd like to offer people the opportunity to request usage of your copyrighted content, you can also include a brief message on your website along with a contact email or phone number through which they can make the official request.

Adding Copyright Notices in WordPress

If your site is based in WordPress, several plugins exist to help with easily inserting copyright notices, including:

Copyright Notices: Are They for You?

Again, it's important to emphasize here that copyright notices are not necessary. Once you've created your website, you own the rights to all of the original content within it. However, if you should decide that establishing a copyright notice would be beneficial to you in the long run, just know that it's very easy to put it in place.

Further Reading and Resources

We have more guides, tutorials, and infographics related to copyright, security, and running a website:

If you really want to understand copyright, we've created a great resource, The Ultimate Guide to Copyright And it really is the ultimate guide; it will tell most of what you need to know. After that, you'll probably need a lawyer.