Copyright notices, along with the famed © symbol, are archaic relics of a bygone era. Rendered obsolete by the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Berne convention, the copyright notice has been virtually useless legally for nearly three decades.
Yet, if you look around you, you’ll see copyright notices everywhere. They’re on CDs, books, Web sites, DVDs and nearly anything else that can be copyrighted.
Lawyers know that these notices are obsolete, so why take up value space putting them there in the first place? Why not use the law as it was intended, to protect “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” regardless of whether or not a notice is affixed.
The answer is surprisingly simple, it’s about prevention. The cost of running a superfluous notice is minimal when compared to the costs of infringement caused by well-intended, but misguided, users.
The Myths of Copyright
Copyright law is one of the most confusing and challenging areas of practices for attorneys. It has few absolutes, strange terminology, unreadable text and vast swaths of gray area. It’s only natural that the general public holds on to many misconceptions about copyright law.
Many feel, erroneously, that if a work does not have the copyright symbol on it, that it is not protected. Many others feel, also incorrectly, that you can’t put such a notice on your work unless you have first registered with the United States Copyright Office.
The problem is straightforward. If you do include a copyright notice, a few lawyers might chuckle, a couple of seconds is wasted and an inch or two of space is used up. However, if you don’t, many users will copy and distribute your work thinking that it is in the public domain.
Not only does this create, at least potentially, more cases of copyright infringement but it also makes them more hostile in nature. People who felt they had the right to reuse a work, even if the law says otherwise, are much more hostile and fight much harder than those who knew they were in the wrong.
In short, while it costs next to nothing to put a copyright notice on a work, the costs of not doing it can be very high.
The other side to the whole issue is that the confusion regarding copyright notices is largely fed by how prevalent they are. If copyright holders everywhere stopped putting notices on everything they create, people would quickly figure out that the lack of a notice is not an indication that the work is in the public domain.
In the long run, it would seem to behoove copyright holders for people to assume that a work is protected rather than simply looking for the notice. That would provide better copyright protection to those who rely upon it and better inform the public about their own rights under copyright law.
Still, it doesn’t seem like that will anytime soon.
However, much of this misinformation is starting to go away. As copyright law winds up in the news more and more, the public is being better informed about certain areas of the law. Now the misconceptions seem to have shifted away from what copyright protects to what it doesn’t protect.
Despite that, many of the old myths still exist in force. It will likely be many years before everyone is educated enough about copyright law to make the minimal effort of adding a notice a complete waste.
Basically, as long as a few people cling to the myth, it will likely be worth addressing.
Copyright notices aren’t going to go away any time in the foreseeable future. They may be relics of the past but they will likely have a place in the footnotes and margins of all kinds of copyrighted works for many years to come.
With that in mind, those of us who are putting our works out there would most likely be best served by taking the few extra seconds and posting a copyright notice on our site, either by using the traditional ©, a Creative Commons License (which can also serve as a notice) or some combination of the two.
When it comes to copyright, clarity is important and can go a long ways to preventing problems down the road. It’s worth the time to do it right.
Despite what many think, people are paying attention.