The 4 Essential Elements of a Copyright Notice

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You have likely seen thousands of copyright notices on printed publications, websites, TV shows, and movies. Have you wondered why they are used and what they mean? And more importantly, if you are a copyright owner, Must you (or should you) display a copyright notice on your work?

A typical copyright notice contains the following four elements:

1) The word “Copyright” or the symbol ©; 2) the year of publication; 3) the author and/or claimant; and 4) the phrase “All rights reserved.”

One reason the use of the word “Copyright” or the © symbol is important is that it informs the public that the intellectual property being protected is a “work of authorship” (as differentiated from other forms of IP such as registered trademarks, which use the symbol ®.) Note that the symbol used for sound recordings is different – sound recording owners do not use the ©. They instead use ℗ with the P standing for phonogram, the official term for referring to sound recordings. Use of the © immediately lets anyone know that the owner of the work is claiming copyright protection in the work with which the notice is displayed.

The year of publication lets everyone know when the work was released to the general public. In some cases, this date also determines the date on which copyright protection began. The date of publication can be important in cases where a copyright owner is trying to prove one of the elements of infringement, namely, whether the alleged infringer had access to the work that is allegedly being infringed.

The name of the author and/or owner—which may or may not be the same—is also important because it puts third parties on notice as to who they need to contact for rights and permissions. It also establishes succinctly and quickly who claims ownership. Finally, the phrase “all rights reserved” is useful for the purpose of clarifying that all of the rights in the work have been reserved to the author/owner (as opposed to works that are made available through a Creative Commons or other type of license.)  

While the four elements mentioned above convey useful information, they are not essential to securing copyright protection or registration. The Copyright Act of 1976 does not require that a copyright owner display a copyright notice on its works of authorship. Under the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright protection begins from the moment the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, regardless of notice or registration. To incentivize copyright owners to register their works, however, the Copyright Act does allow those who register within three months of publication—another reason this date is important—to seek statutory damages for subsequent infringements. This is a huge benefit given the difficulties associated with proving actual damages.

Copyright notices are still widely used and encouraged even though they usually are of little to no legal effect. The Copyright Act incentivizes use of a copyright notice because in certain situations it may allow copyright owners who display a copyright notice to defeat a claim of innocent infringement by an infringer. In other words, an infringer may lose the right to argue that the infringer didn’t know that the work’s copyright belonged to the owner of the work because notice of the copyright was given.

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