How To Copyright a Website
Most websites display a footer tag with the words “copyrighted” or “all rights reserved.” Do these tags actually mean anything? Do you need to copyright your website? It’s not as simple a question as you might think. The images, content, theme, and coding are all elements of a website that can be copyrighted. The ownership of a website is also a murky issue. If you’re using one of the “free” website builders, do you really own the site or do they?
Now that you’ve formed your business, it’s important to start looking at issues like copyright and ownership. Your balance sheet contains a list of all your company assets. Is your website one of them? The images on your site, if original or purchased from another company, may also be considered assets. When you do your year-end reporting and compile financial reports, you’ll need to understand the requirements of ownership and how copyright is relevant.
How do you file for Copyright?
The place to file copyright is the U.S. Copyright Office. Your first step is to create original work. This can apply to a piece of writing, a song, a picture, or yes, a website. If you’ve created any of these and would like to file for a copyright, go to https://www.copyright.gov/ and download Form CO. You can complete the form online. You need the title of the project, description, year of completion, and author’s name. The online filing fee is $35.
Written works, like poems, articles, and songs, are copyright protected the minute you write them down, but if you want to sue someone over breaching those rights, you’ll want to make it official with the U.S. Copyright Office. Proving that your manuscript is original can be difficult if you haven’t used proper archiving and dating procedures in the creation process.
What does a copyright protect?
Wikipedia defines “copyright” as, “a law that gives the owner of a work the right to say how other people can use it.” It mentions books, movies, pictures, songs, and websites as examples of “works” that could be potentially copyrighted. In other words, if you own the copyright, you own the right to say no if someone else wants to duplicate what you have. For a website, duplicating the entire site is unlikely, but many folks will copy your pictures and images to use on their own sites. That’s a breach of copyright law.
Technically, copyrighting your website covers the images on the site, but it’s difficult to prove and prosecute theft. You need to prove that you actually own the images you posted on your website, then prove they fall under copyright protection. We’ll get into that in more detail below. The issue of ownership is almost as complicated as that of the copyright itself. You can’t actually have one without the other.
Let’s talk about your Pictures and Images
According to the image rights agency Copytrack, over 2.5 billion images are stolen every day. According to a report filed by them last year, roughly 85% of the images you see online have been used without the permission of the owner. At last count, over three billion images a day are shared online. Do the math. That means that over 2.5 billion images a day, many of which you see on Facebook and Instagram, were stolen.
How many times have you copied a meme and shared it on your wall because you thought it was “cool?” There’s a reason the numbers on image theft are so high. Most social media surfers don’t treat that as illegal behavior, but it is. In most cases it’s harmless, but if you designed some original artwork that you’re using for the brand identity of your company, and someone steals it, their activities with that artwork could reflect badly on your good name.
So, if image theft is so rampant and difficult to detect, why copyright your images? The answer is simple. You own them. You either created them or bought the rights to them. Copyright them and make sure you’re protected if you need to sue someone for misuse of those images. If you don’t, the other party could conceivably sue you for copyright infringement. Without some type of documentation of ownership, anyone could claim the right to distribute your images.
Copyright your Content along with Your Website
If you create a body of written work and keep a dated original to prove it’s yours, there’s a law that goes into effect called “natural” copyright. It protects your rights of ownership and states that only you can copy or use the body of work you created. This natural copyright is often relied upon by writers who choose not to file paperwork with the U.S. Copyright Office. In their minds, doing so infringes on their “personal freedom.”
These “free” writers think they know the law and are happy to remind anyone who wants to listen that their “natural right” to create is being protected. What they fail to mention, and often don’t know, is that, according to the 1790 Copyright Act in the United States and the British Statute of Anne, those natural rights expire in twenty-eight years. In other words, you really need to file with the U.S. Copyright Office to be truly protected.
The content on your website will be protected if you file for copyright on the website. However, if you get into a legal battle, you might need to prove you own the content. Did you write it? If you didn’t, were rights of ownership transferred when you bought it? There are standard agreements out there you should use when contracting writers and designers. Get all the original files used in the creation process and make sure your contractor signs a disclaimer granting you all rights and privileges for any written material they create for you.
Your HTML and CSS can be Copyrighted Also
We’ve already covered many of the components of a website that can be seen by the average user. Images and content can be copyrighted. HTML and CSS, the coding beneath what viewers see, can also be copyrighted. The code used to build a website is different for every builder. Some of the base codings of certain elements may be similar or even identical to those same elements on another website, but the overall combination of HTML and CSS is unique for every site.
Similar to songs and poems, coding earns natural copyright the moment you enter it into your computer. With code, the very systems you use to create it will automatically archive and date it for you, so proving it’s your original code is simpler if you get into a legal battle. When you file for general copyright on the website itself, your code will be protected automatically.
Your Theme could Belong to the Website Provider
There are dozens of website-building platforms out there with out-of-the-box themes and auto-creation tools. They’re great if you want to quickly get a site online, but you may not actually own that site, or the theme for the site if you want to file for a copyright. Think about the elements we’ve spoken about so far:
You could conceivably own your images if you’re using a site like WordPress or Drupal and you upload your own pictures. If you did a Wix website and just went stock images all the way, you don’t own any of it. How do you keep all this straight? Ask yourself where the image came from. If you didn’t design some artwork or take a picture to post on your website, it’s not original. You may have bought it somewhere, but make sure you have paperwork giving you the right to re-use it before you add it to your website.
Content can always be copyrighted, as long as you can prove you wrote it. Code works the same way, but you did not write the code for an out-of-the-box website, did you? Does the code count as yours because you put your company name on your new website? Can you even copyright such a website? Look at the theme options on the CMS (Content Management System). If you’re buying a copyrightable website, there should be a widget to add copyright language to the footer.
Can you copyright a WordPress Website?
Over thirty percent of the websites you see online are WordPress sites, a total number of websites that are just north of 75 million. Fifteen percent of the world’s Top 100 websites were built with WordPress. The platform is responsible for over five hundred new sites a day and seventeen new blog posts every second. The numbers are staggering, but all you really want to know right now is if a WordPress website can be copyrighted. The answer is yes, it can.
WordPress utilizes themes that are usually copyrighted by the theme creator, but the content and images are provided by you. If you use original content and images, you can copyright the site. It’s that simple. Unlike other web-building platforms that do most of the work for you, WordPress is what’s known as “tech-enabled.” The tools they provide make it easier to build a site, but you still have to put some original thought into it. Many of their premium themes also allow you to add your own code, making the site more of original creation and not so cookie cutter.
Copyrights for an Ecommerce Website
One last note on website copyrights, don’t bother copyrighting an eCommerce website unless you’re using some kind of proprietary technology to process orders. The sites themselves are basically all the same from a coding perspective and the images are just pictures of your products that should be trademarked. Save yourself a few dollars. You don’t need the copyright on an eCommerce website.