The holder of the rights to an artistic work places a copyright symbol and statement on written, drawn or recorded art to identify themselves as its creators or owners. The Copyright Act of 1909 required a copyright notice on works published before January 1, 1978. The Copyright Act of 1976 superseded it, covering beginning on January 1, 1978. Since March 1, 1989, copyright on private works has been optional. The copyright symbol is just one part of that notice.
Copyright and Related Symbols
U.S. copyright laws protects from unauthorized use books, music, films, paintings and sculptures, computer programs and databases, audiovisual works, ads and even maps. A copyright notice is a statement that informs the public that a person or persons claim ownership of a particular creative work. It has three elements that appear as one continuous statement. They are:
- The copyright symbol: © used on "visually perceptible copies" of works, such as writing or drawings. For phonorecords or audio, the symbol is ℗.
- The term copyright, or the abbreviation "copr."
- The year of first publication of the work and the name of copyright owner.
For example, these three elements together should read: "© 2021 John Doe. The use of a copyright notice is the responsibility of the copyright owner and does not require permission from, or copyright registration with, the Copyright Office."
The creator should affix the copyright notice to documents, phonorecords or other works in a location and manner that gives those who see it reasonable notice of their copyright claim. For example, if computer software comes on a disk, the notice should be on that disk. If it is digital-only, it should be visible on the page that a person downloads or on a temporary splash screen at the initial execution. In terms of audio, the copyright notice should appear on a sound recording's surface, label or container in a location and manner that gives those who see it reasonable notice of the copyright claim.
U.S. Government Works and Copyright Notice
While copyright for private work is now optional, there is no notice requirement for U. S. government works. However, those using government works should be aware of these exceptions:
- Other creators may have rights to the work and its usage, such as privacy and publicity rights that protect the subject of the work.
- Anyone using government trademarks or logos must get permission to do so.
- No one can use government works in a way that implies an agency, official or employee's endorsement.
- Government works created by independent contractors may have copyright protection.
It is also important to note that elements used by the government are not always government works. Text, trademarks, logos and images are sometimes protected intellectual property used with the rights holder's permission, therefore it is imperative to check with the government agency or program before use.
Omission of Notice
An omission of notice occurs when a creator publishes a work without a copyright notice or publishes it with errors in the notice. Examples are:
- Notice that doesn't have the symbol © for documents or ℗ for phonorecords.
- Notice that does not contain the term Copyright or the abbreviation "Copr."
- Notice contains a date more than a year after the first publication date.
- Missing a name or date reasonably considered to be part of the notice.
- Missing the specific statement needed for some government materials. For example, under the Standard Reference Data Act, the notices are: “Claim registered under the Standard Reference Data Act, P.L. 90-396 (15 USC 290e)" or “© 2006 Copyright US Secretary of Commerce on behalf of the United States of America."
- Placing the notice in a location that doesn't give reasonable notice of the copyright claim.
Omission of notice does not affect copyright protection for published works after March 1, 1989. For those published between January 1, 1978 and March 1, 1989, corrections to a notice do not have to be made if the omission only affected a small number of publicly distributed works or violated a written requirement that they have the prescribed notice. To preserve copyright in all other cases of omission for this period, rights holders must:
- Register the work before publishing it, before omission occurred or within five years after its publication without a notice.
- Make a reasonable effort to include the notice with all works distributed to the public after discovering the omission.
Consequences of Copyright Errors
If the rights holder doesn't take steps to correct errors within five years of first publication on works published before March 1, 1989, the works will go into the public domain. This means the rights holder loses copyright protection with no chance of restoring it. In instances where a copyright's length depends on the first publication date and that year is earlier than the actual publication date, a rights holder may shorten copyright protection by starting the term at the notice date.
If the copyright notice names a person who is not the owner, a correction is possible by registering the work in the actual owner's name, or the rights holder can record a document in the U.S. copyright office showing their ownership. If the copyright holder does not complete this correction, a person who innocently violates the copyright notice and obtains a license transfer may have an innocent infringement defense if they can prove the omission misled them.
Copyright Length and Public Domain
Protection for works created on or after January 1, 1978 last for the author's life plus 70 years. If the rights holder is a corporate author, the protection is less than 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. According to Cornell University, protection for works created or published before 1978 varies in length, depending on if the work is unpublished or published, and on the terms of the copyright notice.
Works in the public domain are those that never had protection or the rights have expired. The public domain includes most U.S. government works. Works in the public domain are usually are free to use. Works published in the United States before 1925 are currently in the public domain.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.