Can You Register a Copyright on a Website or Web Page?

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Suppose that you have expressed your idea into a tangible form such as a website or web page.  Although your copyright exists upon the moment of creation, do you have a valid copyright on the website or web page?  Should you register your copyright on the website or web page with the U.S. Copyright Office?  The answer is YES!

Under 17 U.S.C. § 102(a),

Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories:

(1) literary works;

(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;

(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;

(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;

(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;

(6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;

(7) sound recordings; and

(8) architectural works.

(b) In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”

The Supreme Court in Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc., 499 U.S. 340, 345 (1991) held that originality is not a stringent standard; it does not require that facts be presented in an innovative or surprising way. It is equally true, however, that the selection and arrangement of facts cannot be so mechanical or routine as to require no creativity whatsoever. The standard of originality is low, but it does exist. See Patterson & Joyce 760, n. 144 (“While this requirement is sometimes characterized as modest, or a low threshold, it is not without effect”) (internal quotations omitted; citations omitted). As this Court has explained, the Constitution mandates some minimal degree of creativity, see The Trade-Mark Cases, 100 U.S., at 94; and an author who claims infringement must prove “the existence of . . . intellectual production, of thought, and conception.” Burrow-Gilessupra, at 59-60.

Can someone obtain a valid copyright on a website or web page? While a website may contain text, artwork, photographs, music, videos, or other content that constitutes copyrightable subject matter on its own, the website itself is not typically considered a copyrightable work. See U.S. Copyright Circular 66.  These types of individual works on a website are registered similar to any other work and the Copyright Office applies the same rules when examining them.  However, to register an individual work on a website, a separate copyright application must be submitted, although multiple works may be registered in one application if they qualify for one of the Copyright Office’s special registration accommodations, for example, as a group registration of unpublished works.  Not every individual work on a website is copyrightable such as ideas or plans for future websites, functional design elements, domain names or URLs, the “look and feel” of a web page, or other common, unoriginal material such as names, icons, or familiar symbols.  To register a website or website content, the copyrightable authorship must be identified and you should not list “website” as the type of authorship.

As for web pages, a specific web page may be a copyrightable expression if it is a combination of elements into a literary and visual artwork.  The web page may have an arrangement of headings and wording that are presented in an original fashion and does not merely consist of words and short phrases, standard typographic ornamentation, functional design elements, and common, unoriginal material, such as names, icons, and familiar symbols.  The particular web page has to show some minimal degree of creativity.  For example, the symbols, headings, two-dimensional artwork, and arrangement of the words, rows, and columns must show a minimal degree of creativity.  If it does, the web page as a whole may be copyrightable because it expresses original selection and creative coordination and arrangement of elements.  Therefore, if the web page has some minimal degree of creativity, it meets the low standard of originality and is eligible for copyright registration under the Copyright Act Section 102, 17 U.S.C. § 102(a).

Alternatively, a website or a specific web page may be registered if it satisfies the statutory requirements for a compilation or collective work.  If there is a sufficient amount of creative expression in the selection, coordination, or arrangement of the content appearing on the individual web pages or the website as a whole as a compilation or a collective work, the registration may cover both the website as a whole and the individual works that appear on the site—but only if the claimant fully owns the copyrights in both the compilation and the underlying works at the time of registration. See U.S. Copyright Circular 66.

Based on the above, you should register your copyright on the website or web page immediately.  You will then be able to sue your competitor for copyright infringement of your website or web page.  Your competitor may argue that you do not have a valid copyright because the website or web page consists of words and short phrases, standard typographic ornamentation, functional design elements, and common, unoriginal material, such as names, icons, and familiar symbols.  However, since the standard of originality is low and the particular web page or web content has to show some minimal degree of creativity, you should have a valid copyright and prevail in your copyright infringement suit.  Therefore, it is recommended that you register the website or webpage with the U.S. Copyright Office.

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