How to Copyright a Website by Jonathan Layton, J.D.

How to Copyright a Website

Because your company's website has value, it merits legal protection against infringement, which can only be achieved by filing an application to register a copyright.

by Jonathan Layton, J.D.
updated December 23, 2020 · 3 min read

A website is a crucial marketing and advertising tool in today's business world. A distinctive, user-friendly website can place your company's products, goods, or services on display, attract new customers and clients, and generally boost your brand.

In fact, a company's website is often among its most valuable assets, one well worth protecting. Copyrighting your website through the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO) can provide federal protection against competing businesses that may be inclined to copy or borrow from it.

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How to Register a Copyright for a Website

Registering a copyright for any original work, including your website, can be accomplished in three steps.

  1. File a copyright application form with USCO either electronically or in paper form via U.S. mail. If you file electronically, log onto USCO's website at copyright.gov and complete an online application by clicking on the registration portal. You must identify the author, type, or category of copyrightable authorship you intend to register, copyright owner, and other information. Specific procedures for registering the contents of a website are found in USCO's Circular 66.
  2. Pay the nonrefundable filing fee. The fee for filing a paper application is typically higher than if you file an online application.
  3. Include with the application (the technical term is "deposit") a single copy or multiple copies of the work you seek to register for copyright protection—in this case, a website.

Although the process seems simple, applying to register a copyright for your website can actually be a tad tricky, in part due to the nature of a website.

At a basic level, a website is made up of different parts. It has an "artistic" side, such as written text, illustrations, videos, charts, photographs, graphics, musical recordings, or other original work that the author intends to have copyrighted.

At the same time, it has a "technical" side, which generally includes the HTML programming code that operates the site. Its unique domain name identifies the website itself, typically created by a person with technical expertise with some input from the website copyright applicant.

Most business owners require assistance with the technical aspects of a website and focus instead on the artistic side. Being novices at the technical aspects, owners will often purchase website templates as the background design for their web pages or employ third-party programmers to write HTML code for their sites. The templates and programming codes remain the property of the third party who created them. Therefore, the applicant (who is not the author of the templates or codes) may not include them in the application for website copyright protection.

Turning to the artistic side, as with all copyrightable works, the information submitted in the copyright application must be the original work of the applicant (author) and reduced to a tangible form. For instance, although the website's domain name is not copyrightable, any text, photographs, illustrations, images, or artwork that the author has created and that the author intends to load and attach to the web page(s), are eligible to be copyrighted.

When completing the application required to copyright a website, the applicant must provide—in the third step—a copy (or copies) of the physical work to be copyrighted so that USCO may make an appropriate decision. Generally, this involves submitting the actual web pages in the same form they are intended to be viewed when displayed on the internet.

USCO has the right to reject an application if the issue of authorship is not clear. As a result, the best practice is to resolve any potential issue with a third-party code developer or programmer in advance of applying. Ensuring that such work was done for your business through a "work made for hire" agreement is one approach to clarifying who owns the copyright to the material.

If you have concerns about properly applying to register a copyright for your website, seek legal advice from a qualified, licensed attorney.

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Jonathan Layton, J.D.

About the Author

Jonathan Layton, J.D.

Jonathan Layton is a graduate of The College of  William and Mary, where he majored in English literature. While in coll… Read more