How to Copyright a Website

How to Copyright a Website

by Jane Haskins, Esq., September 2015

Copyright protects original works of authorship, including the text, graphics, photographs, sound recordings and audiovisual elements of websites and their underlying computer programs. To be copyrightable, website material must meet two criteria:

  • It must be an original work of authorship.  It must originate with the copyright owner and show some minimal amount of creativity.  You cannot copyright a domain name or the title of a website.
  • It must be fixed in some sort of tangible medium that allows it to be perceived, reproduced or otherwise communicated.  This includes computers and digital media. You cannot copyright ideas, procedures, systems or methods of operation.

Who Owns the Copyright to Your Website?

A website is often a compilation of things – text, graphics, photographs, video and computer programs – created by several people.  You only own the copyright to the parts of a website that you created, unless copyrights to the other parts have been transferred to you.

  • If the website was created by your employees as part of their regular job, you will own the copyright.
  • If you hire someone to create a website for your business, the person you hired owns the copyright to whatever they created. If you want to own the copyright to all of the copyrightable portions of your business website, you will need work for hire agreements or agreements transferring the copyrightable content to you. An attorney can assist you with this.
  • Similarly, if you are a website designer, you own the copyright to the copyrightable portions of your designs and content, unless you have signed a written agreement transferring those rights to someone else.

Why Should You Register a Copyright?

There are several advantages to registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. These advantages include:

  • Registration serves as a public record of your copyright ownership.
  • You cannot sue someone for copyright infringement unless you have registered your copyright.
  • If you register your copyright within three months of publication or before an infringement occurs, you can recover statutory damages and attorneys fees if you win a copyright infringement lawsuit. Statutory damages are awarded for each work infringed and do not require you to prove your monetary loss or the infringer’s gain.

Special Rules for Website Copyright Registration

  • A copyright registration only covers the copyrightable elements of your website that you identify and submit to the copyright office as part of your registration.
  • Updates to websites must be registered separately unless they fall within limited exceptions for automatic updates and serials.  Details about these exceptions can be found on the copyright office website.
  • If you developed a computer program, such as an html program, that establishes the format of text and graphics when a website is viewed on a computer screen, you can register a copyright in the computer program, but the registration will not cover the content of the website.

Registration Procedures and Deposit Requirements

To register a copyright, you must deposit three things with the U.S. Copyright Office:

  • A completed electronic or paper application form. The copyright office processes online applications more quickly than paper applications.
  • A filing fee of $35 for online applications and $65 for paper applications.
  • A copy or copies of your work. These will not be returned to you. These may be submitted online, on a CD-Rom, or on a computer printout or audio or videotape. The copyright office website has details about the number of copies you must submit and the ways they can be submitted.

When you're ready to register a copyright, LegalZoom will help you file the paperwork. Just get started by answering some questions about your work.