A copyright protects the contents of a company’s creations (e.g., its website, any software or source code, manuals, brochures, etc.). Copyrights automatically rest with the creator, and assignments to anyone other than the creator must be in writing. If an employee creates something (e.g., the company’s website) in-house, within the scope of his or her job, then the content is considered a work made for hire and the company is considered to own that content. However, if a company hires an outside web designer to create its website, a graphic designer to create its logo, a software designer to create its mobile app, etc., then the designer actually owns the copyright, not the company. Therefore, when hiring any such person or company, a company should enter into a written agreement upfront that clearly assigns the content from the designer to the company, thereby eliminating any doubt of ownership.
Since copyright ownership automatically rests with the creator registration is not necessary. However, a copyright registration can help prevent disputes down the road and serves as bona fide proof of ownership in the content. A registration is required in order to bring an infringement action in court.
Use of the copyright symbol is not mandatory, but is recommended. The format at the bottom of a company’s website, any printed publications or in software will generally be: “© [year] [company name]. All rights reserved.” This notice and/or the © symbol may be used regardless of whether or not a company has filed an application for registration.
If a company does wish to file a copyright application to protect the contents of its website, software, source code, printed publications, music, video, etc., then the process is fairly simple and inexpensive. No substantive examination is conducted to consider whether or not the work infringes an existing work. Rather, the examination process merely ensures that the filing is made correctly, and documents the company’s submission. A registration certificate generally will be issued a little over a year after filing.
A copyright registration covers only one specific work, as it exists at the time of filing. Therefore, future editions/revisions will require additional copyright applications if a company wishes to cover the new material added to the work. In the case of a website, companies should file a new application each year, or whenever making major changes to the site.
A copyright registration (for a work made for hire that is owned by a company) lasts for 120 years from the time the work was originally created; or 95 years from publication, if copies of the work are distributed. No mechanism for renewal exists, so the work will become part of the public domain at the end of the protection period.
For a startup company, it is generally recommended to file a copyright application only if a company’s primary business activity involves a created work, such as a mobile app. In such a case, the application cannot be filed until after the work is created, such as when a beta version releases.