An Introduction to Copyright Law for WordPress Businesses

You know that the content on your site is valuable. That’s why you do things like protect your images from theft. But for those of you who have additional content of value—like web designs, logos, copy, custom video content, etc.—you should know how to keep them safe as well.

Rather than try to find one-off solutions to protect each type of content included on your site, you can use something called a copyright notice as a first-line of defense. You’ve likely seen these before on other copyrighted works even if you haven’t taken notice of them online. It’s a simple string of text that looks like this and it’s usually located in the footer:

So, let’s talk about why you should care about copyright law as a web developer and how and when to use it on your sites.

A Brief Introduction to Copyright Law for WordPress Sites

Copyright law was originally established back in the 1700s to protect the work of artists and writers. However, as new forms of media have arisen (like movies, music, and now websites), the law has had to adapt accordingly. Here is what copyright law says:

#1. What

Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.” Copyright does not apply to the idea for a work, facts, or systems.

There is such a thing as Fair Use that you should also be aware of as a web developer. This “exception” basically says that there are times when others can use copyrighted material for their own purposes, but only under certain circumstances (like parody or criticism). Be careful with this one as WordPress takes this seriously and has been known to step into Fair Use disputes involving their users’ sites.

#2. When

Copyright protection happens the moment a work is created. This means that, unless given explicit permission to do so, no one else has the right to copy, perform, or reproduce in any manner a copyrighted work.

#3. Who

The person who created the work is typically the owner of it unless a work-for-hire situation was created prior to the commissioning of the piece. Say, in the case of a client hiring you to build their website. If they stipulated copyright ownership within your contract, they then own the website’s content even though they didn’t have a hand in creating it.

#4. How

A work does not have to be registered for copyright in order to be protected as it’s an innate right. However, without registration with the U.S. Copyright Office, creators of the work cannot pursue legal action against infringers. (This is something to consider if you have valuable material contained within your site.)

#5. Where

Copyright law protects works in any “tangible” medium. In this case, it doesn’t necessarily refer to something one can physically touch. It’s more about whether or not it can be consumed by the public in some form.

Which leads me to how copyright law affects blogs. Here is what copyright law currently says about websites:

“The original authorship appearing on a website may be protected by copyright. This includes writings, artwork, photographs, and other forms of authorship protected by copyright.”

The underlying code you’ve written for a website, plugin, or theme? Well, that’s a tricky one as code (especially if it’s related to WordPress) is typically considered a “derivative” work and not an original. So, for now, let’s focus on the user-facing content of your site.

In terms of how the law applies to blogs, it’s the same as with everything else. No one else has the right to copy the content from a website without permission to do so. Unlike works like books or music, however, there are some websites that are meant to be reproduced and shared or, at the very least, parts of them.

So, according to the law, all of your content is protected from the moment it’s created and goes live on the web. This also means that others do not have the ability to copy any of that content unless it falls under the case of Fair Use.

But what if you do want your content to be shared? How do you let visitors know that the content is protected and solely yours to own, but that you’re willing to grant them license to use it?

How and Where You Should Use a Copyright Notice on Your WordPress Site

A copyright notice may seem insignificant due to its small stature, but it’s still something that belongs on your site—even if you want to make your content copyable and shareable.

In either case, whether you want full protection of your site or you want to permit others to use your content, here is what you’ll need to do:

1. Adding a Copyright Notice to the Footer

When you first add a new site to WordPress, your theme will likely resemble something like this to start:

A website with no copyright information.

Lots of filler information, but no copyright notice.

You’ll have a few options to consider in order to update this.

  1. You can edit the code within your footer.php file.
  2. You can check under the Appearance and Customize menu option in WordPress. Some premium WordPress themes will include a section where you can add, remove, or update your copyright notice.
  3. You can use a plugin to add and customize the copyright notice.

A plugin is always a good option to consider if you don’t want to worry about altering the code, so let’s walk through the steps involved in using the Footer Putter plugin.

Note: The Footer Putter plugin is available to download for free from the WordPress Plugin Directory. While it hasn’t been updated in over two years, the plugin works well with WordPress 4.8.1.

The Footer Putter plugin logo
The Footer Putter plugin makes it easy to add copyright information to your WordPress site.

Step #1

Install the plugin.

Step #2

Navigate to the Footer Putter plugin in WordPress (it’ll have its own tab on the menu). You’ll see that there are a number of things you can do with this plugin. For now, let’s just concentrate on getting the copyright notice on your site.

Step #3

Select the Footer Credits option.

There are many different fields you can fill in here. However, a copyright notice only requires three pieces of information:

  1. The copyright symbol ©.
  2. The year.
  3. The owner of the copyright.

Here is how you can fill in those fields using this plugin:

Under the Owner tab, type out the copyright owner’s name. This is usually the name of the company.

Under the Legal tab, enter:

  • “State of _________” and enter the state where your business resides under “Legal Jurisdiction”.
  • The year when your site was “Last Updated”. Every time a change is made, technically, you have a new version that requires copyright protection, so make sure to keep this year up-to-date.
  • The year when your site first launched under “Copyright Start”.
  • The copyright symbol under “Copyright Text”. You can also add the word “Copyright” before it if you want to make it perfectly clear that this is a copyright notice (though the symbol should suffice).

At the bottom of the page, you’ll find a preview of your new copyright notice.

If all looks well, save your changes and then move on to the next step.

Step #4

Go to Appearance > Menus. Click on create a new menu and name it “Footer Menu”.

Step #5

Go to Appearance > Customize. Click on Widgets and you’ll find a new option called Credibility Footer.

It is here where you’ll add your new copyright notice. Define which pieces of information you want to include and then Save & Publish.

One quick note I want to add is that you don’t have to go to all this trouble if you simply want to add a string of text to the main footer of your site. The above plugin option creates a new, separate bar at the very bottom of the footer where you can place your copyright notice. It’s up to you on how you want to display it. This is just the cleaner of the two options.

2. Create a Terms of Service Statement

This second part of this process is so you can define the terms of your site’s copyright, whether you want to restrict use of it entirely or grant licenses to your users so they can copy it (or at least some of it). A Terms of Service page will generally cover more than just copyright, but users will know to look here for that information in case they are interested in using your content.

Here is how to create and add a Terms of Service statement to your WordPress site.

Once this is up and live on your website, you will now have proof that tells visitors your content is protected by law.

Wrapping Up

Copyright law has been adjusted over the last century or so to accommodate for the special circumstances brought about by new forms of media. Websites, in particular, have presented some interesting challenges as they bring into question what is a “tangible” medium and which types of content can actually be copyright protected on a website.

Regardless of these questions, a website is indeed a copyright protected work. Whether or not you have content on your site that’s of great value, it’s still a good idea to throw that copyright notice up on it. You never know when you might find your blog’s words or your site’s imagery used by someone else and passed off as their own. Even if it doesn’t result in a revenue loss for you, that’s a completely disheartening and frustrating situation and one you can try to avoid by publishing a copyright notice.