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7 Basic Copyright Tips for Business People

If you have a website, educational materials or marketing copy, you may have copyright questions. Is a copyright notice required? How do you create a proper copyright notice? Does the year make a difference? Who should be listed as the copyright owner? What does copyright registration mean? How are you protected?

If you use original content in your business, you may be interested in the seven basic copyright tips listed below.


1. Notice – Nice but Not Required

Use of a copyright is now optional (since 1989) in the United States. All original works are covered by a copyright whether a copyright notice is displayed or not. Many of us believe, however, it is good to “work that which is yours.” A proper copyright notice can prevent misunderstandings.


2. Do it Right

A proper copyright notice contains the word “Copyright,” the © symbol or both. It also contains the year of publication and the copyright owner’s name.


3. Use the Right Year

The year of publication may not be as easy as you think. It should be based on the date of creation and first publication, not the current year. The publication year can contain a range from the date of the oldest content to the current date (assuming you keep adding new content – always a good idea). If you have content in your materials or on your website that you created over time, use a date range beginning with the year of the oldest materials and ending with the most recent materials or current year.


4. Think About the Owner

You should also think about who is the proper copyright owner? Is it you or your business entity? There can be tax and other advantages to keeping copyright ownership in your name rather than your business entity. Copyright holders can be paid royalty income. This can be good because royalty income is not subject to self-employment (Social Security) tax. That is currently a 15% tax savings off the top. This may not matter if you max out your Social Security tax limit with other income. What about the future? Congress may decide some day to remove the Social Security ceiling and subject all ordinary income to Social Security tax. Royalties are not ordinary income (they are royalty income) and may continue to be exempt from Social Security tax. Also, if and when you sell the business, if you continue to own the copyright personally, you may have an option to structure the transaction so that the buyer pays you continuing royalties over time.


5. Get it in Writing

What if someone else creates content on your dime? Who owns the content? If an employee authors copyrighted materials as part of his or her job while working for you, then the materials may be a work-for-hire owned by the employer. This is a question that can easily be resolved up front with an agreement signed by the employee.

What if you pay a contractor to produce copy, designs, artwork or other creations? Who owns the copyright? The answer is the contractor owns the copyright unless you entered into a written agreement specifying that the content is a “work for hire” to be owned by you or the contractor assigns all copyrights to you. If you want to own the work you pay for, you need to get it in writing.


6. Notice is Good - Registration is Better

Copyright registration is a higher level of protection than a copyright notice. As discussed below, the remedies available to you upon violation of your copyright are much greater. Registration is easy. Simply go to the U.S. Copyright office’s web page,, download the form, follow the instructions and send it off with the required fee. It really is that simple.


7. “Don’t Do It Again” or “Give Me Money”

If someone uses your copyrighted materials without your permission and “infringes” upon your copyright, the first question is whether the copyright has been registered. If not, and if you had a copyright notice or even if you didn’t, you can prevent the infringing party from using your content in the future. This is called an injunction. Without copyright registration however, what is past is past. You will not receive any compensation for infringement that occurred before the injunction.

You get much better rights with registration. If someone infringes upon a registered copyright, the copyright holder gets to “disgorge the profits.” That is, any profits made from use of your copyrighted works must be paid to you.


8. Examples

One more tip than promised! Two examples of copyright notices are set out below.

The first is the copyright notice on our website. Since content on the website has been created and published over time, the notice year is a range of years. I am the copyright owner personally, not our law firm.

            Copyright © 2004-2011. Alan J. Thayer, Jr. All rights reserved.

The second example is from our LegalBriefs summary emails. Since the content for the email is current content, the current year is used.

            Copyright 2011 by Alan J. Thayer, Jr. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. 


In this information age, it is often said “content is king” (in fact, I own that domain name). Copyright protection is the content king’s loyal guard. This article only scratched the surface. If you have creative content, you should take time to think about how copyright protections can be part of your strategic plan.

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