Your business website is a valuable asset for marketing, sales, and customer service power, and you should protect it just like you would your other business property.
What Is a Website?
A website is defined by the U.S. Copyright Office as "a webpage or set of interconnected web pages, including a homepage, located on the same computer or server (i.e., fixed together on that computer or server), and prepared and maintained as a collection of information by a person, group, or organization."
In other words, a website is a structure containing content. It's the content that's copyright protected, not the structure.
Can I Copyright My Website?
In general, work can be copyrighted if it is an original work and it is "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" (something that is printed or recorded or on an active website, for example). A website is a structure containing content that can be copyrighted.
Content on a website qualifies as intellectual property that can be copyrighted if the work is original, is owned by the applicant, and is clearly described. Your website is protected the minute it goes "live" on a server; you don't have to register the copyright for it to be effective.
Copyright protection on a website is for the content on that site. The U.S. Copyright Office also says that content is "material that is perceptible to the users of a particular website." It includes just about everything from news articles, literature, blogs, music, audio such as a podcast, webinars, games, and video.
You can only copyright what's already on your website. The U.S. Copyright Office indicates that the registration extends only to the content presented with the registration. Any content you add to the website later, or any updates to the website would require its own registration.
What Can You Not Copyright?
Here's a shortlist of parts of your website that you can't copyright:
- Your domain name or URL isn't copyrightable, nor is the layout, look, or feel of a webpage.
- Links to other websites don't reside on your website so you can't copyright them.
- You can't copyright work that's in the public domain. These works have no owners, either because the copyright has expired or it's impossible to assert ownership.
- You can't copyright ideas, such as plans for future websites, or functional design elements, because you can only copyright what's in place on your website when you apply for the copyright.
- Common, unoriginal material, such as names, icons, or familiar symbols are not subject to copyright. You don't own them.
Having an outside hosting company for your website doesn't affect your copyright. Your hosting company—the company whose server your website resides with—doesn't have to be owned by you but you should still back up all your website data in case your hosting company server crashes or some other accident destroys it.
Who Owns the Copyright?
It's important to distinguish between an employee of your company who develops a website or writes content for it as opposed to an independent contractor (non-employee) who does this work.
The employee doesn't own the content or design of your website – your business does. But if you hire an independent contractor, this person owns what they created, You will need an agreement with them that gives your company an exclusive license to use it.
Many websites include third-party content, like user ratings or comments. The users own their content on your website. You can transfer ownership of this content (and have it included in your copyright) by requiring users to agree to your terms of service. Then, when you apply for the copyright, you'll need to confirm that the content has been transferred to you by agreement.
Take a few minutes to get familiar with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which protections against copyright claims based on user content, and other sections.
How Do I Copyright My Website?
Although it's true that you have automatic copyright protection the minute the website content is put up before the public; it's still smart to take a couple of additional steps.
Put a copyright notice on every page of your website, including the year. The best way to do this is to have a footer on every page that reads, "Copyright [date] [company name]." And be sure to update the year regularly. Some businesses include all the years of copyright protection, as in "Copyright 2010–2019 XYZ Company."
Register your copyright. You can do this easily with the U.S. Copyright Office. It should be registered under the category "other digital content."
The process of copyrighting a website can be complicated. You might want an attorney to help you or contact the U.S. Copyright Office.
What If You Don't Copyright?
Your website is ever-changing. You're probably adding content to it all the time so you might not want to register the copyright. You'll still be protected by putting the copyright notice on your website. Just be sure to keep the year on the copyright notice up to date and make sure it shows on all pages.
Is a Blog a Website?
A blog is a type of website with original content that's added by you or by others working for your business. A blog can be copyright protected in the same way and in the same category as a website.
How Do I Protect Parts of My Website?
Protect Your Domain Name
Be sure your business owns not only its website content, including graphics and images and your domain name as well. A domain name is a unique identifier on the internet. It appears like "http://www.domainname.extension", such as "http://www.domainanonymous.com".
A domain name cannot be duplicated and it can't be copyrighted. When you register your domain name, you get an exclusive name. But domain names can be the same if they carry different extensions. For example, there might be "domainanonymous.com", "doomainanonymous.net", "domainanonymous.biz", or "domainanonymous.info".
Buy the name under your own business from a reputable domain registration service, but keep in mind that buying the ".com" extension leaves the other extensions open to be taken by someone else. Someone could buy "domainanonymous.biz" and start drawing potential customers away from you.
If you want to protect your domain name from copycats, you might want to also buy some or all of the most common extensions from a domain registration service then have them forwarded to your main domain name.
The "look" of your domain name is separate from its content. This look might include a graphic like the famous Amazon arrow or Google's multicolored "G." You'll have to register it as a trademark or service mark if you want to protect your website's logo.
You might want to copyright any original images on your website separately. And if you use images, make sure that your use isn't plagiarism.
Defending Your Website's Copyright
You'll have to be vigilant if you want to protect your website's copyright. Register the copyright and regularly monitor for plagiarism by searching for copycats. Issue "cease and desist" letters if anyone has plagiarized your site.
You can protect your original website content by adding copyright notices to each page, but it's also a good idea to register your copyright. If your site is complex or includes multiple authors, look for a good intellectual property attorney to help you.