Copyright Notices

You see them everywhere from TV shows, to books, to movies, to song lyrics. Virtually any time you're dealing with something that someone else created, you're going to see a copyright notice.

If you want to protect your rights -- or make sure that you don't violate anyone else's rights -- you need to know exactly how copyright notices work.

First and foremost, what exactly is a copyright?

In the US, a copyright is a right that dates all the way back to the Constitution. Specifically, in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, Congress is given the power to "promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited time to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

In other words, the author of a work gets to exclusively sell his work for a limited time.

Copyright protection has been bolstered by the federal laws that have been created since. Now, copyright owners get to decide exactly how their works are used and distributed. Copyright laws are designed to protect the original author of intellectual property -- like art, poetry, songs, movies, and even computer software.

Contrary to popular belief, things like inventions, designs for a specific product, and company slogans do not fall under copyright protection. Instead, those things are protected by patents and trademarks.

You're not required to formally register your copyright whenever you create new intellectual property. Your rights as the owner automatically go into effect the moment your intellectual property is created, even if you haven't published it yet.

However, if you do want to formally register with the US Copyright Office you' ll have to fill out a quick form, pay a one-time fee, and provide a deposit of the work being registered. You'll get a certificate that lists several details, including:

  • The title of the copyrighted work
  • The author of the work
  • The name and address of the official copyright owner
  • The year the work was created
  • Some status information about the work, such as if it contains information that previously registered, or if the work is unpublished

But what if you and a friend write a book together? Who gets the copyright protection?

Both of you.

The two of you are considered joint authors under US law, so you would both have full copyright protection for the entire book.

Or, if you and a group of people each write one chapter to create a big book, you'll each have copyright protection for the individual chapter that you wrote.

Fortunately, the US has copyright relations with dozens of different countries. As a result, you'll have full copyright protection in any of these countries no matter how many people may have collaborated on the work.

Why is Copyright Protection so important?

Ever since the days of the American Revolution, lawmakers have agreed that copyright protection is a good safety net of sorts for creators. Since they know their work isn't going to be stolen, people are more willing to create wonderfully artistic things and share them with the public.

Plus, with this protection intact, creators can be compensated for their work. Without a copyright, anyone could come along, copy the work, and profit from it.

What is a Copyright Notice?

It's a written statement that's placed on copies and phonorecords of a work. It informs the public that the copyright owner of this particular work is officially claiming ownership of it. Unlike other notices and disclaimers, this one is very easy to write because there isn't much to it.

In order to create a proper copyright notice, you need to have these 4 things:

  1. A symbol

    A copyright notice starts with a symbol, and there are a couple of different ones that you can use. The most common is the copyright symbol:

    Copyright C symbol

    However, you can also use the full word "Copyright" or the abbreviation "Copr."

    If your work is an audio recording, the copyright symbol has a P in it instead of a C. That's because these works are classified as phonograms:

    Copyright P symbol

    Even though the symbol is different, a phonogram copyright comes with all of the same protection that a traditional copyright does.

  2. A date

    The year listed in a copyright notice can either be the year that the work was created (if it's still unpublished), or the year that the work was actually published. In either event, full copyright protection applies. Also, the year can be listed in numerical form (ex: "2017") or in Roman numeral form (ex: "MMXVII").

  3. An owner

    The name of the copyright owner can vary. It can be the owner's full name, an abbreviated version of the owner's name that people recognize, or an alternate name that's commonly known to the general public (like a pen name). It can also be a company, business or organization.

    Here, the owner is Dex Media:

  4. Dex Media's Copyright Notice

  5. Specific rights claimed

    At the end of a copyright notice, you'll find a statement of rights. There are 3 ways that rights can be claimed:

    • "All Rights Reserved" means that the copyright owner is claiming all of his legal rights under copyright law. If anyone wants to copy any portion of this work, they'll have to contact the copyright owner first to get permission. This is the most commonly used rights statement in copyright notices.
    • "Some Rights Reserved" means that the copyright owner is claiming some of his rights, but is willing to waive other rights. Those rights vary from owner to owner.

      Creative Commons is a great example of "Some Rights Reserved" because every creator who posts their work there can decide which rights they'd like to hang onto.

      For example, one copyright owner may allow people to use his work as long as they attribute it to him.

      Other works on Creative Commons may come with more specific rules, which can lead to a longer copyright notice.

      Take a look at the copyright notice for this slideshow presentation:

    • Copyright Notice for a Creative Commons license on a Slideshare presentation

    • "No rights reserved" means that the creator of the work isn't claiming any of his legal copyrights. Instead, he's releasing his work into the public domain so that other people can use it, modify it, and enhance it.

      If you're searching for public domain works to use, be on the lookout for this symbol:

    • No Rights Reserved C copyright symbol

By the time you're done, you'll have something that looks like this:

Copyright notice example

Or, the next time you sit down with the kids to watch Pocahontas, you'll see this:

Copyright notice for the Walt Disney Company

Depending on your specific circumstances, you could present these 4 things in several different ways.

Here are some of the suggestions found on Plagiarism Today:

Plagiarism Today copyright notice examples list

Do you have to include a Copyright Notice on all intellectual property that you create?

The answer is no.

In the US, any work that is unpublished, foreign, or was published after March 1, 1989, including a copyright notice is optional. However, it's still a good idea to have one and here's why:

  • It makes it crystal clear that you're asserting your legal rights as the copyright owner, which can scare potential infringers away right off the bat.
  • It makes it impossible for someone to go into court and claim they didn't know the work was copyrighted. This is commonly referred to as the "Innocent Infringer" defense, and your copyright notice will prove that it's a bogus argument.
  • It lists the exact person/company that owns the copyright so that people who want to ask for your permission to use some of it know exactly who to ask.
  • It shows exactly when the work was published.

Where should you put your Copyright Notice?

Whether it's attached to a physical work, a digital copy, or a phonorecord, your copyright notice needs to be placed in a spot that's conspicuous. After all, if no one sees your copyright notice, it doesn't provide nearly as many benefits.

For example, a copyright notice for a book should be placed right at the beginning. If you're selling a CD full of copyrighted music, put the notice on the disk itself. Or, if you're dealing with digital works -- like an app or software -- your copyright notice should pop up for a few seconds after the work is downloaded.

What happens when the Copyright Owner dies?

According to US law, copyright protection lasts for the author's entire life, plus another 70 years. In fact, a copyright is no different than any other asset, so a copyright owner can pass down his protection to someone in his will. Transferring a copyright like this doesn't affect the rights associated with it at all. All of the same protection will exist for the new owner.

Take a look at this example from a book written by Ayn Rand. In this case, the copyright owner has become Leonard Peikoff, the Executor of Rand's estate.

Copyright notice showing executor of Ayn Rand's estate as owner

Can you transfer your work to another Copyright Owner while you're still alive?

Yes, you can.

For example, take a look of this copyright notice that appears on Mark Twain's book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

You'll see that the original copyright owner was Samuel L. Clemens, which was Mark Twain's real name. But then the copyright was transferred to the publishers Harper & Brothers. In 1912, two years after Twain's death, his daughter Clara Gabrilowitsch became the copyright owner. Even though Gabrilowitsch didn't die until 1962, her copyrights were transferred to The Mark Twain Company in 1923:

Copyright notice list for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

However, as of 2018, everything that Twain published before 1918 is part of the public domain. While you might think that applies to everything he ever wrote, it doesn't. The University of California got ahold of some of Twain's unpublished works in the 1960's and published them with their own copyrights, which are in full effect until 2047.

Stories like these are proof that it's important to understand copyright details!

What if someone disregards your Copyright Notice?

In the eyes of US law, that would qualify as copyright infringement -- which is a federal crime -- and the penalties can be severe.

If you have already registered your copyright, you can sue the infringing party in civil court. If you win, the infringing party will have to pay you a judgement. The exact dollar amount depends on a few different things -- including how many profits you missed out on because of the infringement and how many times the infringement occurred. The infringing party can also be forced to pay your legal fees. And if all of that wasn't enough, the court can impose statutory damages up to $150,000 on top of the judgement.

However, the money you get will depend on when you registered your copyright. If you didn't get your registration within 3 months of the work being sold, rented, or loaned to anyone, you may not eligible to collect statutory damages or legal fees.

Civil court isn't your only chance to get justice, though.

Copyright infringers can face criminal charges. Typically, federal prosecutors only charge people when the infringement is worth more than $1,000, or if the work in question was distributed over the internet before it was officially released. For example, if you were producing a movie and someone published it online before your movie hit theaters, they'd likely be charged with a crime.

For infringement cases up to $2,500, the maximum penalty is a year in jail. If the infringement is worth more than $2,500, the maximum penalty is 5 years in jail, along with any assorted fines and/or legal costs.

The court also has the power to shut down a website that has infringed works on it. Or, the infringing party can be ordered to destroy the illegal copies that they've made.

Notice that a video is no longer available due to a copyright claim

Copyright notices are serious business, whether you're the owner of the copyright or someone who's interested in using some of the copyrighted information. Now that you know how these notices work and what kind of protection they offer, you'll be able to create to your heart's content without worrying about stepping on any legal toes!