While most businesses won't typically copyright an entire website, they often copyright specific components of the site.
In an era of user-generated content, video posts, and online thievery, it's critical that businesses are aware of their rights as content creators. Though copyrights are automatically granted to protect material works and expression under the U.S. Copyright Act, filing for copyright registration carries added benefits.
Intellectual property experts and proprietors weigh in on the best practices.
What and When to Copyright
According to business attorney William Goldman, founder of Goldman Law Group PLCC in Washington, D.C., filing for copyright registration "provides proof of ownership and eligibility for statutory damages." He adds, "Also, registration is required for bringing a lawsuit for copyright infringement."
Most businesses won't typically copyright an entire website—they copyright select content within it. Website content commonly refers to personalized works, including:
Corrine Chen, an associate attorney at Romano Law in New York City, recommends copyrighting content before launching a website, though it can be done on a rolling basis.
"Each piece of content may be registered with the Copyright Office either on separate applications or grouped together in one application as a compilation of multiple works or collective works," she explains. "Consider how much content needs to be registered and decide which practice would work best for keeping your content protected."
How to Copyright Website Content
The process of copyrighting web content can be handled in three steps, according to search engine optimization marketer Jon Torres, who owns a website development, design, and content marketing firm in San Diego.
- Complete the U.S. Copyright Office application. Be sure to identify the type or category, author, and copyright owner of the registered website.
- Pay the non-refundable fee. Online registration for a single work of authorship is cheaper than print registration. Copyrights last the lifetime of the author, plus 70 years. There is an additional cost for renewal.
- Provide a copy or several copies of the work to register. The artistic part of a website includes text, videos, images, audio recordings, and other original works. The technical part includes HTML programming and other code.
Protecting Intellectual Property
Businesses generally register evergreen materials that will be widely distributed, such as white papers, manifestos, or PDF guides, according to attorney Erin Austin, who represents motion picture production and distribution companies and publishers, among others.
"It makes less sense to register each page, which tends to change and be updated regularly," says Austin, founder of Think Beyond IP, a boutique law firm in Northern Virginia. "Most of the content is protected by copyright. Other parts may be protected by trademarks, such as the logo or slogan."
Trademarks, copyrights, patents, and trade secrets are all considered intellectual property, a catch-all for any product of human intellect—inventions, artistic works; designs, symbols, names, and images—used in commerce that the law protects from unauthorized use.
Valuable Business Assets
Rick Hoskins views the website of his subscription air filter business as a critical asset.
"Legally protecting my company website was a no-brainer," says the founder of Miami-based Filter King. "Today, plagiarism is rampant on the internet. And unfortunately, there are copy cats in every industry willing to lift passages from your marketing content and pass them off as their own."
Shaun Martin, who owns a real estate investment business in Denver, believes copyrighting his website adds a layer of protection to deter unscrupulous actors.
"As a small business owner and content producer that relies on content to make money, I believe the small cost to register website copyright is worth the effort," says the founder of Watson Buys. "I have had several occasions where people have used my material on their website without recognizing me as the creator. A friendly email and mention of my copyright have always led to an amicable resolution."
One Size Does Not Fit All
Other businesses, like affiliate marketing publication Gadget Review, don't see the need to copyright their website.
"If you have a subscription service, it's likely a good idea to copyright your site," says Rex Freiberger, chief executive of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based company. "For us, the website is a delivery method for the content and services we offer, so it didn't feel necessary."