What It Means to Copyright a Website

By Alyssa Gregory
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This article was written in 2009 and remains one of our most popular posts. If you’re keen to learn more about copyright, you may find this recent article on copycat startups of great interest.

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The vast majority of websites have a copyright notice in the footer. Most designers do this as routine on all websites they design. But what exactly does it mean and what protection does it provide? This is vital information for web professionals to know. Here are answers to some common questions related to copyrights.

Please note: This information is based on copyright laws in the U.S. as provided on www.copyright.gov. It is provided as general information and is not a substitute for professional legal advice.

What Is a Copyright?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “Copyright is a form of protection provided to the authors of ‘original works of authorship,’ including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.”

The basis of the U.S. law is the Copyright Act of 1976, which gives authors of original works exclusive rights to the works and the option to grant usage rights to others. Generally, the rights include:

  • Reproduction
  • Development of derivative works
  • Distribution
  • Public display

How Can I Copyright a Website?

Original work is copyrighted from the moment of creation, provided it’s fixed in tangible form. What does “fixed in tangible form” mean? This means that the work has to be documented or communicated in an observable way, either directly or through a machine or device. Some examples of fixed in tangible form include written on paper, saved on a hard drive, or captured on a recording device. Ideas, systems and methods cannot be copyrighted.

A website — graphics, content, visual elements — is copyrighted at the time of development. So putting the copyright notice on the bottom of a site states that the material displayed is not to be used without permission of the owner. In fact, you don’t even need the notice to claim copyright; the law eliminated the requirement of public notice in 1989.

To take this one step further, copyright registration is an option when protecting online works. Registering a copyright provides a public record of ownership, plus registration is necessary before filing an infringement suit in court, should you ever need to do so. You can register online or by mail, by providing an application, a non-refundable fee (which is currently $35 for online registration), and a non-returnable deposit. The deposit is the entire work to be copyrighted (i.e. the website), which can be uploaded or sent in via CD.

This is important to note: the registered copyright only extends to the works included in the deposit. If you update the website after filing the copyright, you will need to register again for the new material. There are two cases (databases and serials/newsletters) where, if you meet the requirements, you can register in three-month chunks, with the copyright covering three months at a time. See Circular 62b for more information serials and newsletters, and Circular 65 for more information on databases. Please note: At the time of writing this, Circular 65 was being revised and was unavailable.

Who Owns Copyrighted Material?

Generally, the creator owns the rights to the work, except in the case of a “work for hire” arrangement, such as an employer/employee relationship. If you’re a freelancer or business owner hired to create a specific work, you are considered the creator and retain all rights, unless you have a “work for hire” agreement with the client that grants them ownership of the work. These details should be negotiated and outlined in your contract for every job so there is no question about ownership. This paragraph has been corrected from the initial post which misstated the designer’s rights.

Does a Copyright Extend Internationally?

There is not a world-wide copyright, but many countries adhere to international copyright treaties and conventions for foreign works. Review Circular 38a for a list of countries and their copyright laws.

For more information on copyrights, how to register and current fees, visit www.copyright.gov.

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  • sno

    If you’re a freelancer or business owner hired to create a specific work, the client is considered the creator and retains all rights.

    That’s incorrect! The exact opposite is true. Unless there’s a ‘work for hire’ agreement or the artist is a regular (W2) employee of the company, the artist retains ownership unless agreed upon otherwise.

  • dev

    Need fee? seem little bit expensive, if i has ten website and mean i need to pay $350?

  • Brian

    I love that despite this article, if you take a look at the bottom of this page:
    “The contents of this webpage are copyright © 1998-2009 SitePoint Pty. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.”

    :) Thought it was a bit ironic.

  • hairybob

    Realistically, copyrighting the design of a website is an absolute waste of time.

    This blog/article represents nothing more than a straight rip from http://www.copyright.gov!!!! Next time you put something like this together it would be beneficial if you could bring something more to it. This might include either some supporting case law or interviews with relevant people that have pursued legal remedies against those that have infringed their copyright.

    I’m not a huge fan of scraped website designs or – for that matter – scraped content that provides me with nothing more than I could have obtained had I chosen to visit the public domain website from which the material was sourced!

    Sitepoint needs to be more selective with their writers, pay more, both, or lose readers.

  • Having recently completed a case regarding a non-paying client who was also infringing on my copyright by using my work without having paid or securing copyright privileges here are a few pointers:

    Copyright attorneys are expensive but have one look over your contract anyway and tighten your wording to ensure your work is covered in its entirety during the whole process with your client. The same goes for the other areas of your contract, ensure they have been looked at by an attorney so you have an iron clad contract before you have to use it.
    Go to a copyright attorney and have them show you how to file your first copyright registration (it costs $45 to register a copyright). It may cost between $300-500 to have them show you but once you know the right way you can do all future ones yourself and it will save you time and money in the end.
    Copyright your work when it is published / launched. Copyrighting it prior to that may put you in a position where you have to copyright it again due to changes and updates.
    The entire website is not necessary to file. A screen-shot of the layout (your unique look), the code that makes that look work the way you want it to, and the css file is sufficient. If you have a database run site a few samples of how the data is inserted is also helpful, but not necessary.
    Ensure your contract clearly states that your work is done as a freelance company and not as work-for-hire and that you retain all copyright until the account is paid in full, at which time you will transfer non-exclusive rights to the client. If you do not have that in your contract you could be in trouble from the start.
    Copyright transfer must be done on paper. A simple form stating what you are transferring with signatures and dates from both parties is sufficient. It should clearly state if you are transferring exclusive rights or non-exclusive rights (the latter is preferred) and if the client may update, modify, sell, transfer, or otherwise use your code in any other way than that in which you delivered it.
    If you must file a copyright infringement suit you will have to file in Federal court, not circuit, city, or county but Federal and it will cost around $1,500-3,000 just to file. You must have your copyright registration papers in hand before filing. Having filed is not sufficient you must have the certificate.
    Any copyright infringement of your work is punishable by the piece, meaning each copyright infringement of each work that you register will be a separate count. So if your backend code can be used separate from your front end code register them separately. Each infraction is punishable at files upwards of $150,000 and rarely is a case only about one infraction.
    If a client uses your work without having already secured the copyright and for whatever reason they do not pay and therefore do not get the copyright transferred then you are entitled to any profits they made resulting from the work you did during that infringement time.

    ie. If you create a landing page for a client that advertises a product and that landing page allows them to sell $100,000 worth of product during the time they use your code without permission and without proper copyright then you are entitled to that $100,000. That said, if they secure the copyright at the end of the contract and pay up their account as originally agreed those profits are irrelevant as they secured the copyright as agreed.
    Don’t ignore this advice! You’ll regret it when you have to sue and you don’t have everything in order (it costs over $700 to register an emergency copyright so try to avoid that).

  • Mike

    I was talking to my wife about this recently, as I see lots of websites that always say “Copyright 2009” (eg this current year) as though it makes the site appear to be more up to date. This is especially odd on sites that you know to have been not updated for years.
    My understanding of Copyright, which I know is vague, is that it is about prior art… eg you are trying to prove you did it first. So saying “Copyright 2009” is to undermine your own claim to the originality of your work. This wrongly suggests that someone who copied you last year and has Copyright 2008 on theirs (and can prove they had it live then), has the prior art.
    For this reason, I always put “Copyright 2002 – 2009” or some such… giving the date the site first went live, and the first content was written, and then the final date I amended anything on the site. Of course this could be equally wrong and misinformed.
    I got really excited when I saw your article listed, hoping it would finally cover this topic in such a way to erase all my uncertainties and help me correctly label my sites in the future.
    Unfortunately, this article didn’t give much help at all.
    Does anyone else want to comment on what they put in the Copyright section of the site?

  • adamtrickett

    Just a note for Australian designers: Copyright is automatic and does not require registration or fee payment. Although this system is free, it offers the same level of protection as in other countries.

    Trademarks are a different story however…

    Information is available on the Australian Copyright Council website [can’t post links yet :-(]. These guys are supported by the Australian Government.

    (Here’s the link: Copyright Council of AustraliaRaena)

  • danno2

    You may be better off making it imperative on the actual pages of your website, that users not violate copyright laws by using your content without your permission. This makes more sense. Overall, content is king on the web, and it’s the actual content on your site they are interestedin….not the place or URL that offers that specific content.

    Good article! Thank you.


  • With the increased number of blogs nowadays, I guess there is a rampant copyright issues. With the strict definition of copyright, an article that is re-written in a different style, not verbatim, is considered a copyright infringement. I do think that bloggers should really place some disclaimer in their blogs to avoid legal issues.

    Anyway, this is a good article!

  • Sitepoint needs to be more selective with their writers, pay more, both, or lose readers.


  • ciarak

    There is an online service you can use to protect websites from copyright infringement which is a lot cheaper and easier and than applying for a copyright:


    With Digiprove you simply have to create an account, and then you can use that account to Digiprove any websites you create. If you take a look at http://www.ewarenesstraining.com, for example, you can see at the bottom of the page that their site is Digiproved. This means that if anyone tries to copy their site, they have indisputable proof that the design was theirs first.

  • queen

    i guess lol