Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Web Design Copyright

Following the post from last week, where my company’s hard work was yet again jacked, this post contains information about copyright and the web, and some basic information all designers and content creators should know. Since it seems to be on everyone’s mind, it’s worth going over the ground rules yet again.

As a follow-up to the somewhat hot-headed rant I posted last week, I wanted to share with you some information about copyrighting websites and a few mechanics behind protecting work. A lot of this information was researched for my book, but it’s been an issue I’ve liked to stay close to since taking copyright law courses in college. (I am not a lawyer, so take this stuff for what it’s worth — in an unofficial, but very confident, capacity.) I have also included some links at the end of the post.

The US government provides three different types of protection for intellectual property:

  • Patents. Unless you’re trying to patent a particular process, or a piece of browsing software, patents have little to do with the day-to-day design of websites.
  • Trademarks. These are a little more common, but they are reserved for unique pieces of design that transcend mediums — logos, slogans, and even product designs.
  • Copyright. For the web, copyright is almost always the beast in question, and has caused ripples of contention across the internet since CERN launched the first webpage in 1991.

Who Owns the Goods?

Figuring out who actually owns the work in question is probably the most complex piece of the puzzle. Companies who developed the site in-house are covered under work made for hire laws; everything a full-time employee creates is owned outright by their patron company.

The situation gets dicier when a freelancer or agency is involved. Technically, the creator owns the rights to the work. This means that unless the contract stipulates a transfer of rights, or the freelancer accepted into a work made for hire agreement, the company has no claim to the material. Many organizations falsely assume that once they buy the services of a designer, they own the final work.

Another bug in the system is the handling of non-original elements such as stock photos, illustrations, outsourced creative work, and more. In order to fully claim copyright, the company either has to directly acquire the rights, or use them in a way that constitutes an original work. Sound thorny? It is.

Registering the Work

In an effort to further complicate the issue, the US Copyright Office does not provide a form specifically written to protect work on the web. Instead, a site has to be registered within one of several antiquated, pre-Internet set of parameters:

  • Form TX covers published or unpublished literary works, and is suitable for text-heavy websites (typically a good choice for corporate domains).
  • Form VA covers published or unpublished visual arts work, and is probably the better choice for websites heavy on visual art (such as original photography).
  • Form SE covers serial work, such as newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals, and could easily apply to blogs or sites like Digital Web.

There is no magic bullet; every website can be registered under only one form. By today’s standards, the system is older than the hills, and it’s no secret a web-oriented amendment is long overdue. Too much is left to interpretation in a medium where infringement is all too easy and all too common.

Protecting the Work

Because the copy and paste function makes months of hard work stealable in mere seconds, web designers and content creators have to perform due diligence in protecting their work.

  1. Register your site. In the US, it only costs $45. While technically you own the right to the work as soon as you create it, registering the work with the government provides a concrete date that can be used in court. An official registration is critical to successful legal action, and really necessary if you’re going after statutory damages.
  2. Add a copyright notice to the bottom of every page. This should be properly formatted as Copyright Year Copyright Owner, such as Copyright 2008 Kevin Potts. Make sure the year is current. (“All rights reserved,” often seen accompanying the copyright, is unnecessary.)
  3. Add a copyright notice to your CSS files. Invisible to everyone except those actually peeking under the hood.

For designers and content creators who make a living working on the web, copyright is an absolutely critical thing to understand. Each country is also different. The UK has their Copyright Services Australia, by contrast, has no copyright laws in place.

Further Resources

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commentary + criticism

Lawrence San

wrote the following on Saturday December 22, 2007

> Register your site….really necessary
> if you’re going after statuary damages.

Two comments: It might be helpful if you described the process of registration. I don’t mean how to fill out the form… in registering printed work, you send them one or two physical copies of the work. When registering a website, do you have to print out the whole thing and send it? If you just send the URL, how do the contents get frozen as of the copyright date?

Also, I believe the term is ‘statutory’ damages, not ‘statuary’ damages, unless you’ve built a website about people vandalizing sculpture!


wrote the following on Wednesday December 26, 2007

can you tell me if there is a list of names i could search to find who is registered?
thank you,
usa karate


wrote the following on Friday January 4, 2008

Lawrence — thanks for picking up that mistake; I fixed the text.

As for the process, I have found that lawyers like to deal with the lowest common denominator of documents, which means either paper or, at best, a PDF. For my employer’s site, for instance, we turned off the print stylesheet and captured every page as a PDF document (using print-to-PDF), then supplied a single indexed file with every section and page in the PDFs master TOC. It was time-consuming, but that was what they asked for, and it also allowed them to make hard copies for actual submission.


wrote the following on Thursday May 22, 2008

As mentioned by Kevin already, the US Copyright Office has a lot of useful information. In particular, I found this Guide to Registration for Online Works very helpful.

The Guide also notes that any changes made to a work must be registered. This is especially applicable to websites which are updated frequently. Generally, revisions to online works that are published on separate days must each be registered individually, with a separate application and filing fee, with exceptions for databases and newsletters.


wrote the following on Thursday May 22, 2008

What about when the site contents or codings change like a lot of business sites have daily / weekly / monthly changes etc.?

Is there a way to copyright your service as a web designer in whole to cover any and all websites you build, create, and then any and all changes made by you?

is there a way to say make stipulations on individual copyrights .. e.g. I the designer own the site codings the client owns the domain and any files they provided – company info, pictures, plain text verbiage for the site…

in my case every site is different and the circumstances around it are different from one client to the next.

do you have to have a lawyer send the desist order? If i send the cease & desist order to the ISP and infringer myself can i still have a lawyer involved later in the process? I’m having a hard time finding a lawyer that knows about copyright laws that is anywhere remotely close that I can use in court if it makes it that far.

sorry for so many questions just trying to get my ducks in a row been search the net for weeks now on the topic

Thank you