A copyright is the legal right to prevent others from using an originally authored work. Copyright law is similar to trademark law, which covers logos and brand names and protects inventions. It is important to note that the item or work that is to be copyrighted should be an original work and not a reproduction or copy of property that has already been copyrighted.
According to federal copyright law, a valid copyright entitles the owner of the copyrighted work to many exclusive rights, such as the right to:
- Reproduce the copyrighted work;
- Distribute copies of the copyrighted work to the public for sale;
- Perform the copyrighted work;
- Produce a license derived from other copyright materials; and
- Licensing rights in order to manufacture and make a product.
Examples of the most common examples of creative work that copyrights can protect include, but may not be limited to:
- Recorded or sheet music;
- Books and novels;
- Content contained on a website;
- Software codes, video games, and CD-ROMs, although these may not be protected if they have already been distributed through a copyleft agreement; and
- Various forms of art, such as paintings, plays, dance choreography, and sculptures.
Under federal law, an owner receives a copyright to their work automatically once the work has been “fixed” in a “tangible medium of expression.” The term website is defined by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) as “a web page or set of interconnected web pages, including a homepage, located on the same computer or server (i.e., fixed together on that computer or server), and prepared and maintained as a collection of information by a person, group, or organization.”
Copyrighting a website is relatively easy. This is because a website owner typically gains the above copyright and ownership rights once the website is published and live, so long as they independently created the work and did not adapt it from something else.
Because copyright protection becomes available the moment that an author fixes a work in a tangible form, the website creator doesn’t have to do anything else other than publish the website. Additionally, once the work is protected, no one else can use the work without the creator’s permission.
However, a website owner may gain additional rights by registering their copyright with the USPTO. Copyright infringement occurs when someone violates a copyright owner’s exclusive rights without the express consent of the creator.
What Should I Do If Someone Copied My Website?
If someone has copied the contents or code of your website, there are several different options that you have as the original copyright owner of the content. First and foremost, you should determine whether you simply want the infringer to stop infringing upon your copyright or if you want to be paid damages that resulted from the infringing party utilizing your copyrighted material.
A person may infringe on the exclusive rights of a copyright holder. If so, the holder of the copyright, such as the website owner, may sue the infringer civilly for damages resulting from their infringement. Examples of the most common legal penalties associated with website copyright infringement include:
- Compensatory Damages: The infringing party will have to pay the copyright holder any money that they gained from the use of the website copyright;
- Statutory Damages: These damages are established by statute, specifically Section 504 of the Copyright Act. Statutory damages allow the owner of a copyright to recover a specified amount of damages, generally between $200.00 and $150,000.00 per work that is infringed;
- Injunction: An injunction is a court order that orders the party who is violating the copyright to stop their infringing acts
- Typically, a court will look at the actions taken by the copyright owner in protecting their work, such as sending a cease and desist letter;
- Orders of Seizure: If an infringing party possesses illegal copies of a copyrighted work, such as the code of the website on a local server, the court will generally order that the illegal property be seized;
- Criminal Penalties: In the case of willful copyright infringement, the infringing party may also be held criminally liable and could face criminal penalties. These include imprisonment for a period of up to 5 years, fines of up to $250,000.00, or both per violation.
It is important to note that a typical copyright infringement lawsuit may include any combination of the above damages, as well as attorney fees and court costs.
Determine What Material You Have Copyrighted.
As the copyright holder of a copyrighted website, it is important to first ensure that you have certificates of copyright registration for any material that has been copied on another site. Once again, registering a copyright provides additional benefits, such as putting all parties on notice of your copyrighted works.
As such, if you have not actually copyrighted the copied material, you may have a more difficult time proving copyright infringement has occurred. If you have not copyrighted your website, you should do so immediately and save all the documents that you submitted to the USPTO to be copyrighted.
Collect Evidence That Your Copyright Has Been Infringed Upon
If you believe that your website copyright has been infringed upon, it is important to start collecting evidence of the copyright infringement of your site. You can do so by making copies of the infringing website’s contents.
For instance, you can take screenshots of the website content, as well as print out the contents of the website on a physical medium. Screenshots will contain metadata that demonstrates the date that the pictures were taken.
Further, you may also get a copy of the source code of the website, i.e., the HTML or code that was used to create the website for each page containing copyrighted information or content. One way to show that you wrote the original material is to add lines in the copied code that demonstrate there are exact repeating lines of code or content.
Send a Cease and Desist Letter
As mentioned above, one of the first things that a copyright owner should do to protect their work is to send a cease and desist letter. It is important to draft the cease and desist letter carefully and not threaten legal action that you are not prepared to take. A cease and desist letter should state:
- A list of materials that you have copyrighted;
- What materials the infringer has used/displayed on their website without your permission;
- That you will notify the internet service provider (“ISP”) that the infringer has copied your site and has violated your copyrights;
- A deadline for the infringer to stop their infringing actions; and
- That you intend to file a lawsuit if the infringement continues past the deadline.
It is important to note that the contents of a cease and desist letter will differ on a case-by-case basis, and the above list is not exhaustive. Further, a cease and desist letter should only be sent after you have secured evidence that the infringer has actually copied copyrighted works.
This is because you do not want the infringer to make small changes to the content of their site to distinguish it from your site. If they do so, it would make it very difficult to prove copyright infringement has occurred.
Contact the Host ISP
As mentioned above, as a copyright holder, one of the first steps that can be taken to protect your copyrighted work is contacting the host ISP of any website containing copyrighted works. If you show the ISP that a website it hosts has infringed on your copyrights, they are likely to stop hosting the entire site or remove the infringing material to ensure that it does not get involved in contributory liability.
Do I Need a Copyright Lawyer if My Site Has Been Copied?
If you are having issues concerning your website being copied, it is in your best interests to consult with an experienced copyright lawyer in your area. An experienced website copyright attorney can help you understand all of your legal rights and options. Additionally, if you need to file an infringement lawsuit, your attorney will also be able to initiate that suit and represent you during formal court hearings.