Copyright FAQ

This section provides concise answers to common copyright questions. Some of these issues are covered in more detail in The Ultimate Guide to Copyright.

Copyright Basics

Here are answers to commonly asked questions about the fundamentals of how copyright works.

Q: What is a copyright?

A: It is the legal right granted to an author, which protects their intellectual property from being copied by another person without explicit permission to do so.

Note: in this case, "author" is the generic term used for the original creator of the work and does not solely refer to authors in the literal sense of the word.

Q: Is there any difference between copyrights, patents, and trademarks?

A: Yes. Copyrights protect intellectual property like music, movies, novels, websites, etc. Patents protect inventions. Trademarks protect brand-related slogans, logos, and imagery.

Q: Do I have to be 18 years old in order to claim a copyright on my work?

A: No. If a minor has created an original work, the copyright belongs to them. It would be advisable, however, to verify your local state's laws as they pertain to any age-related restrictions regarding business.

Q: How long does copyright last?

A: For newly registered works, copyright length is the life of the author plus 90 years. See Length of Copyright for information about anonymous works and works created before 1978.

Q: Can I transfer my copyrighted work to someone else?

A: Yes. Intellectual property is much like the physical property you own in that it can be sold, transferred, or willed to another individual. If you change your mind after transferring your copyrighted material, you can also terminate the transfer and take back ownership to all rights.

Website Copyright

Here, we answer questions related to how copyright applies to websites.

Q: Is my website protected by copyright?

A: Yes. The content (text, images, audio, and video) and the design are both covered by copyright. Of course, if you used an existing theme or template, that copyright doesn't belong to you.

Q: Can I copyright my domain name?

A: No. Your domain name is protected by ICANN. Your business name and logo are not eligible for copyright either. They are instead protected by trademark law.

Q: If I have built my website, but it hasn't yet been published, is it still copyright protected?

A: Yes. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

Q: If I live outside the United States, is my website copyright protected in the US.?

A: If your country of origin has a copyright agreement with the United States or is a Berne Convention member country, then protection for your website does exist within the US.

Q: If I live in the United States, is my website copyright protected in other countries?

A: If you're seeking copyright protection in a country that has a bilateral agreement with the United States or is a member of the Berne Convention, then yes, your website will be protected in that country.

Q: I have a great idea for a website. Can I copyright it before I write it?

A: No. Copyright protects works, not ideas.

Copyright Registration

Here we discuss how to register a copyright and more.

Q: Do I have to register for a copyright?

A: No. It is automatic when you create a work. See Copyright Registration for more details.

Q: If copyright registration isn't necessary, then why should I bother with it?

A: Some people simply want a legal certificate on public record. The most common reason many people register their websites is, because without it, they cannot take any legal action against someone who has infringed upon their copyright.

Q: Where can I register my copyright?

A: For an official registration of your copyright, visit the United States Copyright Office's website and fill out your application form there. You may also use one of these alternative copyright registration routes.

Q: Do I have to submit my application online?

A: No. You can either complete the online registration — which gives you a better means for tracking your application and is also cheaper — or you can mail in a paper application.

Q: Is there a registration fee?

A: Yes, there are three fees: one for the completed application, one (nonrefundable) for filing, and one (nonrefundable) for a deposit.

There are also fees associated with looking up copyright registrant information, transferring copyrights, reconsideration claims, and more. Always check with the federal website before submitting any applications or requests.

Q: Will I ever have to renew my registration?

A: A copyright exists over the course of the author's life, plus an additional 90 years, so you should not have to renew your registration.

However, if you have made any extensive changes to your website whereby it becomes unrecognizable from the previously registered iteration, you will have to submit a new registration claim.

Q: When will I receive my registration?

A: For an exact estimate of when you you'll receive your certificate, check with the Copyright Office for processing times.

It's important to note that the actual registration date of your website is the date that you submitted your completed application, not the date on which they finish processing it.

Q: Do I need to submit a mandatory deposit?

A: Yes. Within three months of publishing your work and registering with the United States Copyright Office, two copies of the copyrighted material must be submitted to the Office for use in the Library of Congress.

Copyright Notice

Understanding the fundamentals of copyright notices and how they work is discussed here.

Q: What is a copyright notice?

A: A copyright notice is a statement placed on all copies of your work and must include the year of publication, the owner's name, and the copyright symbol.

Copyright notices are not necessary, but are still frequently used on intellectual property, regardless of whether the work has been registered or not.

Q: How do I make the © copyright symbol?

A: In HTML: © In desktop applications: Use the "insert character" or "character map" tool. Everywhere else: Try copy-and-paste.

Q: Where should I place the copyright notice?

A: For websites, the most common place to put the copyright notice is in the footer. In general, so long as the notice is legible and easy to locate, you can place it wherever you want.

Q: How can I make sure the copyright date on my website is always current?

A: Scripting!

Here's an example in JavaScript:

<span id="copyright-notice">© 2010
yr = new Date().getFullYear();
if (yr!=2010)
document.write("– "+yr);
Company Name</span> 

Be sure to replace the two 2010s with the earliest date of publication for content on your website. This code will display either a single year or a range of years, and will always be current. Of course, you can do this server-side with PHP or any other language as well.

Also note that the layout of the JavaScript text above may cause the notice to span three lines on your website. If this issue does occur, merge the text above onto a single line.

Q: What if I found an error in my copyright notice? Is it too late to change it?

A: No. You can update your copyright notice at any time. If you don't want to give infringers the ability to claim "innocent infringement" due to erroneous or missing information, make sure this information is always correct and up-to-date.

Know your rights.

Q: How do I know if someone has infringed upon my copyright?

A: If your website — or any of the copyrighted content (images, text, coding, etc.) within it — has been reproduced in any way without your permission, then you have a case for copyright infringement.

Q: What steps do I take if my copyright has been infringed?

A: If you believe that someone has stolen or unlawfully used or represented your work, then you need to make sure you've first registered your copyright with the United State Copyright Office.

Once there is a public record of your copyright registration, you will then be able to take legal action against the infringer.

Q: I got a DMCA takedown notice. What do I do?

A: If you think you really weren't infringing, file a counter-notice with your service provider. See Digital Millennium Copyright Act for more information.

Q: I only used eight seconds of a song on my video. That's Fair Use, right?

A: No. Fair Use is determined by context and intent, not by the length of an excerpt. See Fair Use for more information.

Q: I would like to use someone else's work on my website. How do I do that?

A: You'll need to contact the owner of the work and request permission. If you don't know who the copyright owner is, for the fee, the Copyright Office can look that information up for you.

Q: Is it possible to use small portions of someone else's copyrighted material on my website?

A: There are certain circumstances by which you may use portions of other people's copyrighted material for your own purposes. Make sure you are familiar with Fair Use before doing so. If ever in doubt, reach out to the copyright owner to request permission to use their work.

Further Reading and Resources

We have more guides, tutorials, and infogragphics 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.