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Why Bother With a Copyright Notice?

Notice ImageOn the surface, a copyright notice seems like an anachronism.

The law hasn’t required such a notice for decades (in the U.S.), the structure of the modern copyright notice was developed well before the Internet and few people seem to notice them, beyond the presence of the date.

So why have a copyright notice at all? Why, as I discussed previously on Performancing, take the time to learn how to write a proper one and append it to your site?

Are we just bowing before an old tradition or is there something more to the humble copyright notice? We have to dig a bit deeper to find out.

The Purpose of a Copyright Notice

The purpose of a copyright notice, as the name implies, is to put the reader on notice that the work is copyrighted. This, in turn, has three key benefits to the copyright holder.

  1. Though most countries don’t require a notice, having a notice may provide some protection in those that do.
  2. It prevents confusion on the nature of the work and keeps others from thinking it is not copyrighted.
  3. It eliminates innocent infringer claims (PDF), maximizing the amount of damages that you can win should you decide to sue.

However, the first and third items on the list are almost completely useless to most content creators online. Any nation that requires a copyright notice is not a signatory to the Berne Convention or WTO and, most likely, isn’t going to honor your copyright regardless. The third is pointless because few content creators are in a position to sue at all and innocent infringers status does not have any bearing on filing DMCA Notices or taking other non-litigious action.

This, for most creators, leaves only the second argument, that it prevents confusion. While that is still true, awareness of copyright has increased a great deal in the past 20 years and many of the old copyright myths, while still around, are not as widely believed as they once were.

But could there be other reasons for keeping the traditional copyright notice around? There are a few that are definitely worth considering.

Other Uses of the Copyright Notice

In addition to providing an increasingly useless legal function, a copyright notice also imparts other pieces of information including the date the work was created/published and who the copyright holder in the work is.

This information can be useful for a variety of reasons, including understanding how old a piece of content is or who created it. This can be very helpful to anyone looking for recent information on a topic or, more relevant to the creator, if they need to contact someone to license the work.

However, all of this information can easily be imparted without a traditional copyright notice. In fact, for bloggers, most of the information can be in the post meta information (if displayed) or, for visual artists, in the image information. In short, you don’t need a formal notice to gain these benefits but it might help as the footer will, most likely, be the place many will first look.

But perhaps the most important reason copyright notices are so common is because they are also expected. Generally, we expect professional websites, tv shows, books, newspapers, etc. to have a copyright notice because they have almost always been there. It’s one of the things that make such works look finished and complete.

With that in mind, it makes sense that others would emulate those notices not just out of fear of a legal requirement that doesn’t exist, but also to appear as professional and as “official” as possible.

In short, many, if not most, of the people who put copyright notices on their site don’t know why they do it. They just know that others before them with more experience have done it and it seems like a good step to emulate.

Bottom Line

In the end, the real reason to keep a copyright notice on your site is simple: It takes no time to do it and, even if it only offers an incredibly small amount of protection, it’s probably still worth it.

If a copyright notice prevents just one infringement, it’s likely more than worth the time and energy to create one.

Still, it is fascinating that the phenomenon has lived on so long after much of its usefulness was removed from the law. While larger content creators certainly have good reason to include notices, to eliminate innocent infringer claims if nothing else, smaller ones get very limited benefit from it.

On that note, it would be interesting to talk with various webmasters and ask them why they put their copyright notice on their site. I wonder how many did it because that was the default of the template, because they saw others do it first or because they misunderstood the law or because they knew the law and felt it worthwhile.

It’s an interesting question that, most likely, will never get answered.

4 comments
Chantal Paré
Chantal Paré

I have a copyright statement to grant permissions that are generally disallowed by copyright. That way, people don't have to email me for permissions that I have chosen to grant automatically. Also, I state uses that I strictly forbid.

Mitch Labuda (@mlabudaphotos)
Mitch Labuda (@mlabudaphotos)

I have one simple line of text on two sites I own. Courts have stated that copyright is strict liability, so ignorance of the law is no defense.

I'd like to see Picscout, which is used by many and works and is not a simple notice, at a price point for the rest of us

Andrew Elston, CEO, iCopyright
Andrew Elston, CEO, iCopyright

Great post, Jonathan. Copyright notices don't have to be inert lines of text that simply display ownership and date. Copyright notices can--and should--be intelligent and interactive when they are on a website. iCopyright has a patent-pending solution that is used by many leading publishers to not only assert copyright but to promote and monetize reuses. Better than Creative Commons, which is just an inert expression of permissible uses, iCopyright actually lets publishers profit from their works and allows users to quickly obtain reuse rights and permissions. It is the copyright system for the 21st Century. Check it out at http://info.icopyright.com/vision-for-copyright/

Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey

While I agree with you and definitely think this is an area worthy of exploration, I guess you might say this article is focused on the traditional copyright notice, not the more technically advanced ones that, by their very nature, bring their own features to the mix :)