Although most small business owners think of a website as a tool for marketing or sales, websites can also create legal concerns.
Your domain name is your business's internet address. Only one person or business can own a particular domain name. You can purchase a domain name from a domain registration company, or, if someone else already owns the name you want, you may be able to purchase it from the current owner.
Domain names – like all other names – aren't copyrightable, though you may be able to register a trademark in your domain name if it is distinctive and identifies your product or service. For example, ’shoes.com’ is too generic to be eligible for trademark registration, but ’zappos.com’ is a valid trademark.
If you want to make sure others aren't using a domain name similar to yours, you might consider purchasing other suffix endings for your domain (for example, yourbusiness.net and your business.info in addition to yourbusiness.com) You might also consider purchasing similar or alternate spellings for your domain name.
Websites are Entitled to Copyright Protection
Your business website is an original work of authorship that's entitled to copyright protection. There are two requirements for your website to be copyrightable:
- It must have been created by the copyright owner and show some minimal amount of creativity. Your website's title and your domain name can't be copyrighted.
- It must be in a tangible medium – in other words, you can't copyright your idea for a website; you must have actually created its content digitally or in some other medium.
The Basics of Copyright Ownership for Websites
A website typically consists of many different elements, including text, photos, video and computer programs. You will only own the copyright to the parts of your website that you create, unless someone else transfers a copyright to you. Here are some rules to remember:
- If your employees created part of your website as part of their regular job, your business owns the copyright to that part of the website. For example, your business owns the copyright to a company blog created by your employees.
- If you hire a consultant or outside company to create a website for your business, the person or company you hired owns the copyright to the things they created, unless they signed a work for hire agreement or a written assignment transferring the copyright to you.
- You may have a license to use the material on your website for certain purposes without having a copyright to the material. For example, you might have a license to use a photograph or a WordPress theme.
Website Copyright Registration
The U.S. Copyright Office has some special rules for copyright registration for websites:
- Your copyright registration only covers the copyrightable elements of your website that you identify in your registration application.
- For the most part, updates to your website must be registered separately, though there are some exceptions for automatic updates and serials. Details are available at the copyright office website.
- You can copyright a computer program that creates the format for text and graphics when they're viewed on a computer. But your copyright will only cover the computer program, not the content of the website.
Avoiding Infringing Others' Copyrights
Because photographs, graphics, video and written text are all protected by copyright, you could be liable for copyright infringement if you use someone else's work without their permission. Thus, you can't just find a photo on the internet and stick it on your website.
You can, of course, hire a photographer or take photographs for your website yourself, obtain the photographer's permission to use an existing photo, or purchase the right to use stock photos through an online stock photo service.
Similarly, you're infringing a copyright if you copy the written text from another company's website. Take the time to write your own website content, or hire someone to do it for you.
Some of the material on your website might be eligible for trademark protection even though it is not copyrightable:
- Your domain name, if it is distinctive and used to distinguish your business from others.
- A tagline or slogan
- Your logo
If Your Intellectual Property is Stolen
If another website uses your copyrighted or trademarked material without your permission, the burden of enforcement falls on you – no third–party enforcement agency monitors and polices unauthorized use. To implement your rights, take the following steps:
- Contact the site owner and ask that your content be removed. If no contact information is available, search for the domain using your content, and use the information provided to determine the administrative contact for that site.
- If the content has not been removed within several days, contact the company that hosts the offending website. You can determine who hosts the site by searching www.whois.net. Email or call the technical contact for the hosting company and let them know one of their customers has infringed upon your copyright.
- If the site host does not take action, talk to a lawyer experienced with Web–based intellectual property. His or her first step is typically to send a letter asking that the content be removed.
- Ultimately, you may be forced to sue the site owner and possibly the company hosting the site to require them to stop using your content.