for Website Owners

by Joelle Steele

Copyright law protects creative output, such as your website, and it is important to understand copyright to make sure that yours is protected and that you don't infringe on someone else's copyright when you are in the process of creating your own online works.


Before you can copyright anything you must establish its ownership. To establish ownership you must to be able to prove that you obtained it legally or that you created it yourself. According to the U.S. Copyright office:

Mere ownership of a book, manuscript, painting, or any other copy or phonorecord does not give the possessor the copyright. The law provides that transfer of ownership of any material object that embodies a protected work does not of itself convey any rights in the copyright. Copyright is the right of the author of the work or the author's heirs or assignees, not of the one who only owns or possesses the physical work itself.

So, if you wrote your own website, you own it, and you can copyright it.


Your work is copyrighted as soon as it is created in a fixed tangible form, in this case, published on the Web. According to the U.S. Copyright Office:

Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work.

Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created in fixed form. The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work. Only the author or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully claim copyright.

You can use one of the following copyright notice formats on your website, and it doesn't matter whether you use the copyright symbol or spell out the word:

© Mary Jones, 2005
Copyright 2005, Mary Jones
Copyright 2005, Mary Jones. All Rights Reserved

The term of copyright protection — how long it lasts or endures — varies according to when the work was created. Anything created on or after January 1, 1978 is protected from the moment it was created, and that protection lasts for the length of the creator's life plus 70 years after his or her death. If you created the work with another person, that 70 years begins after the death of the last surviving creator.


To make your copyright a matter of public record, it can be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office at any time during the life of the copyright. However, registration is not required for copyright protection. However, if there is ever a legal action being taken to prove/disprove copyright infringement, the timing of the registration could be significant, since it determines, in part, any damages that may be awarded in such a lawsuit. Also, if a copyright is registered, it allows its owner to record that registration with the U.S. Customs Service, which strives to protect you from having illegal copies of your work distributed.


With any kind of intellectual property you must obtain permission from the creator and owner of a copyright in order to use their work in any way. For example, if you use an image created by an artist or photographer and digitally enhance it in some way and then put it up on your website, you have created a "derivative work." If you do this without obtaining the permission of the artist or photographer whose image you used, you are infringing on their copyright. The following are definitions of derivative works:

DEFINITION: 17 U.S.C. §101: A 'derivative work' is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a 'derivative work'.

DEFINITION: U.S. Copyright Office Circular 14: A typical example of a derivative work received for registration in the Copyright Office is one that is primarily a new work but incorporates some previously published material. This previously published material makes the work a derivative work under the copyright law. To be copyrightable, a derivative work must be different enough from the original to be regarded as a "new work" or must contain a substantial amount of new material. Making minor changes or additions of little substance to a preexisting work will not qualify the work as a new version for copyright purposes. The new material must be original and copyrightable in itself. Titles, short phrases, and format, for example, are not copyrightable. Who may prepare a derivative work? Only the owner of copyright in a work has the right to prepare, or to authorize someone else to create, a new version of that work. The owner is generally the author or someone who has obtained rights from the author.


Unfortunately, there is no system of international copyright laws to protect your work worldwide. According to the U.S. Copyright Office:

Protection against unauthorized use in a particular country depends, basically, on the national laws of that country. However, most countries do offer protection to foreign works under certain conditions, and these conditions have been greatly simplified by international copyright treaties and conventions.

If you publish your work outside of the United States, you can still have your work copyrighted by the U.S. Copyright Office if:

The work is a foreign work that was in the public domain in the United States prior to 1996 and its copyright was restored under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA).


As you can see, there are a lot of complexities surrounding the rights of a creative person. This article is by no means the definitive reference for such rights, and it is highly recommended that you regularly and frequently visit the United States Copyright Office online to find out about all the latest happenings with regard to copyright law.

This article last updated: 04/24/2016.