Copyright: Finding out what you own on your website

For some of you who are considering creating a website to conduct business, there are some legal issues to address first. We know that websites are primarily vulnerable to infringement. As one can freely put up information online, such information (or the way the information is shown) can readily be copied or misused without the owner’s permission. Idea theft does not and will not promote business growth. You need to protect your website from infringement.

It may be of great help knowing which aspects of your website you can claim yours and which you cannot. You need to distinguish which elements are of your copyright. And thus, you could prevent others from re-using or displaying in other site without your clearance.

What is a copyright?

Copyright is an intellectual property right. It gives the holder the right to exclusively use a material AND the right not to allow others to use the material without the holder’s consent. By holding a copyright over what you own and created, you can maintain exclusivity of use. Take for example, a personal review blog. The writer of this personal blog (because the blog entry is his original creation), he has exclusive right to use, display it in any form, destroy or sell his blog review. The copyright law prevents any other third party from ever using his or her review without the writer’s consent. That is, if the writer did not consented to such. If the third person however has obtained permission, he is allowed to use it subject to his’ and the writer’s agreement.

Thus, if you know that your website content is copyrighted, you can be assured that only you could rightly assign the right to use your content. Any other unauthorized person is an infringer of your copyright, and could be sued.

What can be copyrighted?

Whole websites are NOT protected by copyright. However, component parts of a website such as text, graphics, files, script, artworks, logos and data could all be copyrighted as long as you created them. The Australian Copyright Council enumerated some copyrightable parts which include:

  • text, including song lyrics (literary works)
  • photos, logos and other images (artworks)
  • music
  • sound recordings
  • video files and animations (cinematography/films)
  • tables of words or symbols (compilations)


What can you do to protect what you own?

We recognize that one of the usual practices in website development is to hire a third party to design the site and/or to put up the content. If this is the case, it is advisable to have a contract stating that ownership rights exclusively belong to you. This is to protect you and your business from possible payment of damages or royalties should the third party assert his or her copyright to the material.

Another is notice. You should remind all users of the website that the material is copyrighted. This can be done by placing watermarks over photographs or graphics in your site. Others put a copyright symbol © followed by the word ‘copyright’ and the name of the copyright holder. Sometimes the year when the content or the website was created is also included. This puts the user on notice that the owner reserves his exclusive right to use the content. Together with copyright notice, you can include statements indicating the permissible uses of the content either after the copyright notice or in a Terms of Use page.

We earlier said that the website itself is not copyrightable. So are domain names and trade names. However, business name is also protected by intellectual property laws as a trade name or trade mark. The best thing to do is to register the business name or domain name under the trademark laws in your country. If you suspect someone is using your business name or any part of your website without your permission, contact the website owner and direct him or her to remove all references to your site and/or take down all copied content. Otherwise, if the effort seems futile, court action is the next best option. Remember that these options will not be effective if the name is not registered.

You can also limit access to your website content by placing passwords for users. This way information could only be accessed by members or authorized clients. Of course, make it clear in your site how users can contact you to obtain permission to access some content. This may also be included in the Terms of Use page.

Also, programs such as Copyscape could be used to detect copied materials. This program compares website content to other pages indexed by Google and finds matches.

What laws protect copyright holders?

Each state has its own set of laws protecting copyright and penalizing infringement. In the United Sates, for example, the Digital Millennium Act is the copyright law which criminalizes production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent measures that control access to copyrighted works. It also criminalizes the act of circumventing an access control, whether or not there is actual infringement of copyright itself. In Australia, the Australian Copyright Act of 1968 (as amended) is the federal governing copyrights. Changes were brought about by Copyright Amendment Act in 2006 which made it illegal to circumvent technical measures used by copyright owners to protect access to their works. It also introduced strict liability offences for some copyright infringements.

As different jurisdictions have different copyright laws, efforts were made to harmonize them and establish standardized copyright legislation. This started in 1967 with the creation of the World Intellectual Property Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, composed of 185 member-states. It adopted an international treaty called WIPO Copyright Treaty in 1996. The Treaty advances additional copyright protection necessary for today’s digital age. It ensures that computer programs, software are protected as literary works and databases as copyrighted collections. It proscribes circumvention of technological measures for work protection. Among the parties to the Treaty are United Kingdom, Japan, France, People’s Republic of China, and Australia.

All these being said, there are a lot to consider first before hiring a contractor to put up your website. Remember that anything you post online might be copied and used to your disadvantage. Court action could be costly at the very least. Inquire about how you can best protect your content from infringement. An internet law specialist could guide you on how to set up access restrictions tailored to your business’ needs. He or she could also spell out your rights as a copyright holder, as well as draft the Terms of Use page you can use in the website.

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