Do You Have To Put the © On Your Work?

The “c” in a circle: © is is a world-famous symbol, and yet it is no longer required for protecting works under U.S. copyright law. In fact, this has been true for many years, but here are some things about what the legal profession calls “copyright notice” that you should know:

For eighty years – from 1909 to 1989 – works published in the United States would only be protected under the federal Copyright Act if they were published with proper copyright notice. A proper notice included the name of the copyright owner (often but not always the author), the year of first publication, and yes, that famous © symbol.

It probably won’t surprise you that many works lost their copyright protection because the copyright owner forgot the notice or applied it incorrectly. In fact, things got so out of hand that the courts often devised rationales for finding that a work had not yet been published. Thus, the notice error did not void protection. Perhaps the most famous example involved litigation over Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Written copies of the speech had been distributed to the press covering that historic event, but the court held that those distributed copies were not sufficient publication to have required the copyright notice. So, Dr. King won, and his heirs continue to control the copyright rights for the speech.

In order to avoid the injustice of losing copyright rights due to mistakes with the notice requirement—and also comply with international copyright agreements to protectU.S. works around the world—Congress abolished the notice requirement altogether. Consequently, although many creators still use the © to remind people that their work is protected, any work published in the U.S. after March 1, 1989 no longer requires the notice as a matter of law.

BUT it is worth considering that even today, a copyright notice is not completely meaningless. If your work is registered with the Copyright Office prior to an infringement , you can elect “statutory damages,” which means you do not have to prove financial harm suffered as a result of the infringement. ,The court will instead pick from a range in the law (currently $750-$30,000) per infringed work for ordinary infringements. However, in some cases, where the infringer can prove they had a good faith belief that their use was not infringing, statutory damages can be reduced to zero. But if there was a copyright notice on the work, that can defeat the “innocent infringer” reduction of statutory damages.

Finally, although placing notice of copyright is not required, anyone who knowingly removes Copyright Management Information (CMI) for the purpose of facilitating infringement is breaking the law. So, the bottom line is that a copyright notice (e.g., © Your Name, Year) can’t hurt and might even help. But most importantly, register your work before you put it out in the world, or you give up key enforcement tools under U.S. law.

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