You may put a lot of work into your website or blog, only to find someone stealing your content. They call it borrowing and think you should be flattered. But it’s theft of your intellectual property. You can guard against this form of thievery by enforcing your copyright in a website…
Is Your Website Copyrighted?
Copyright is a universally recognized legal principle that basically says “what you create is yours and people can’t use it without your permission.” The word “use” is critical and the source of heated debate online. Many laymen assume that if you don’t make a separate copy of a Web page, but merely link to it, then you are not violating the owner’s copyright. That isn’t the case, courts have ruled.
Sure, if you add a link to your site that takes a visitor to another site, then you’re not violating copyright. But if you “frame” someone else’s Web page in your own site, then you’re using it illegally – unless you have obtained the copyright owner’s permission to use his or her creation in that way.
It’s even worse if you’re using an image on your website, but referencing it (in the IMG tag) from the original location. You’re stealing not just the content, but the other site’s bandwidth to serve that image.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to do anything to claim the copyright in your work; copyright arises automatically when you create the work. But to document formally that you did, indeed, create the work and when you created it, there are several steps you can take. Some cost money.
You can add a copyright notice to your creation. “Copyright 2014 by John Doe, All Rights Reserved” is a standard statement. You can also give away some rights in your copyright statement: i.e., “Copyright 2014 by John Doe; Permission to copy and distribute for non-commercial purposes is hereby granted.” That means anyone can use your work unless they’re making money by doing so.
What if Your Copyright is Violated?
They don’t have to be selling copies of your work in order to be making money. Displaying your work next to ads for which they are paid by the click is a “commercial purpose” prohibited by such a copyright notice. Using your description of a gem’s metaphysical and healing properties to sell jewelry would be another example of a commercial purpose. Plagiarizing your article on how to secure a wireless router, and selling it to a computer magazine would similarly qualify. There are even “article generators” online that grab chunks of text from multiple articles, and glob it into a new “article” that is published online as an original work. These articles usually don’t make any sense to a human, but search engines can sometimes be fooled by them. Tools like Copyscape can help you find unauthorized copies of your work on the Web.
Registering your creations with the government copyright office of your home nation is the best legal protection you can get. Basically, you send a copy of your Web pages to the copyright office along with your registration information: name, date of creation, title, etc. The U.S. Copyright Office charges fees ranging from $35 to register works electronically. But let me reiterate that you DO NOT need to register a work with the copyright office in order to claim copyright. Copyright is automatic, implicit upon creation, even if you don’t label it with a copyright notice. But if you want to be able to prove that you did in fact create and copyright a specific thing, registering can be beneficial.
If your copyright is violated there are several steps you can take, with increasing effort and expense. Sometimes a simple courteous notice to the violator via email is sufficient. “I didn’t know, sorry” is a common response. If that doesn’t work, you can track down the violator’s Web hosting company with a formal notice of copyright infringement and demand that the offending content be removed. The WHOIS database can help you find the owner of a website, or the web hosting company they use.
Web hosts are generally immune from legal liability for infringing materials they host unless they have been put on notice that they are doing so. To avoid being sued for millions of dollars, most Web hosts will act very swiftly to block or “take down” allegedly infringing material. The violator will usually get a “take it down or we’ll cut off your Web site” notice from the host, and that gets people’s attention! If you have copyright issues pertaining to a Google search engine listing, check out Google’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act page.
What’s the difference between copyrighting and trademarking? It can be tricky, but in general, copyright assigns ownership to a creative work, while a trademark is applied to a distinguishing word or symbol. See LegalZoom’s Trademark FAQ for more on that distinction.
Taking someone to court over infringment of your copyright is a last resort. It’s a lengthy, expensive process that’s only worthwhile if the copyright has great financial value to you. Here’s a low-tech, no-cost way that may suffice for minor cases. I once had an issue with a person who “borrowed” an image from my website without permission. They had linked to it instead of making a copy, so I just updated my copy of the image with an overlay that said “This Image Stolen From…” Problem solved!
Do you have something to say about copyrighting a website? Post your comment or question below…