Intellectual Property Issues for Websites

Intellectual Property Issues for Websites

There are a lot of decisions to make when it comes to your company website. You want your site to be appealing and user-friendly for your visitors and attractive to search engines. And you want to convey what’s special about your business.

You may not have considered that your website also raises intellectual property issues.

Copyrights and Websites

Websites are copyrightable works of authorship.

  • The site must have actually been created in a digital or other tangible medium. You can’t copyright an idea for a website.
  • The site must show some minimal amount of creativity.
  • You may be able to register a copyright for your website as a whole.
  • You may also be able to register a copyright for individual elements of your site, such as the text or the photographs.

Who Owns the Copyright?

When you hire someone to create a website, a logo, or written content, you might assume that you’ll own the copyright to whatever was created for you. But that’s often not true.

  • The creator of an original work automatically owns the copyright to that work.
  • If you or your employees create something as part of your job, your business will own the copyright.
  • If you hire a third party to create a logo, website or other creative work, the third party will own the copyright unless you have a written document that transfers that copyright to you. That document might be called a work for hire agreement or a copyright assignment.
  • A third party who owns a copyright may also grant you a license to use a work, usually for a specific purpose and/or a specific amount of time. Licenses can be exclusive, meaning that only you can use the work, or they can be non-exclusive, meaning that the same work might also be licensed to others. Licenses are commonly used for photographs and for website templates.

If you don’t want another business to have a website that looks and feels just like yours, make sure your contract with your web designer includes a transfer of the copyright to you or an exclusive license for you to use the copyrighted work.

Registering Website Copyrights

You can register a copyright for your website, but it is subject to some special rules:

  • Your registration won’t necessarily cover your entire website - it only covers the elements that you specify in your registration application.
  • You will probably need to separately register any updates to your website.
  • If you copyright a computer program that creates the format for text and graphics for a website, your copyright will only cover the computer program, not the contents of any website.

Domain Names

Many people confuse domain names with copyrights and trademarks. However, a domain name is not a type of intellectual property - it’s simply the address you use for your website. You obtain a domain name from a domain name registration service.

You can’t register a domain name that is already being used by someone else, but you can register a similar name, or one that has a different extension at the end -- .net, for example, instead of .com.  Some business owners register similar domain names as well as the domain they intend to use. This prevents others from using confusingly similar names.

In some instances you may be able to get trademark protection for your domain name. Your domain name would have to meet the requirements regarding distinctiveness and likelihood of confusion, and you would also have to be using the domain name to identify your goods and services - not just as a website address. “Amazon.com” is a good example of a domain name that has trademark protection.

Because names aren’t copyrightable, there’s no copyright protection for domain names.

Trademarks and Websites

While copyrights protect works of authorship, trademarks protect the words and symbols you use to identify your business and set it apart from others.  Many of the elements of your website may be eligible for trademark protection, including your business name, domain name, product names, logos and slogans.

Trademarks on your website are subject to the same rules as trademarks generally.

What to Do if Someone Else Uses Your Website’s Intellectual Property Without Your Permission

When you register your copyrights and trademarks, you gain important rights if you have to file a lawsuit to stop an infringer. But neither the U.S. Copyright Office nor the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will help you enforce your intellectual property rights - the responsibility is on you.

Here are some steps to take.

  • If you find out about a website that is using your copyrighted or trademarked material, contact the site’s owner and ask that the material be removed.
  • If that doesn’t work, contact the company that hosts the website and advise them of the site’s copyright or trademark infringement.
  • If that doesn’t take care of the problem, contact an intellectual property lawyer for assistance. The lawyer will usually begin by sending a strongly worded letter to the site owner.

In extreme cases, you may have to file a lawsuit to enforce your rights.