This is one of several Web-related documents. It is one of my few finished projects.

Some Notes on Copyrights

This document contains my notes on the subject of copyright laws. Since I am a United States citizen, these notes are U.S.-centric; however, people in other countries may find them to be useful.


In the United States of America, copyright laws have been established by a number of acts of congress. Furthermore, in the United States it is against the law to practice law without proper credentials. Please do not use this document to get definitive answers about copyright law. Instead, if you want a definitive answer about copyright law, go secure the services of a lawyer that specializes in copyright law; do not ask me, since I am not a lawyer.

Having said all of that, if anybody that knows more about copyright law than me wants to correct mistakes in this document, I would love to hear from them, so I can fix them.

Executive Summary

A work with neither a public domain notice nor a copyright notice is treated as public domain in some countries and copyrighted in others. In order to be non-ambiguous in all countries in which a work is read, it is necessary to attach some sort of notice to it. If you want your work in the public domain, attach a notice to it saying so; otherwise, attach a copyright notice to it.

The vast majority of U.S. citizens do not yet realize that material published in United States is now copyrighted as a matter of course, irrespective of whether there is a copyright notice attached. If this is not what you intend, attach a public domain notice to your work.

To put a work in the public domain, just add `This work is in the public domain.' to your work. For works first published in the United States, a copyright notice of the form `Copyright (c) {first year of publication} {copyright owner} All Rights Reserved.' is quite sufficient; whenever feasible, try to replace the ASCII approximation of the copyright symbol (e.g. `(c)') with the real copyright symbol.

In a large number of countries the duration of a copyright is at least the author's life plus at least 25 years. In the United States, copyright duration is the author's life plus 50 years. The United States 28 year plus 28 year renewal stuff only matters for works published before 1978.

In the United States copyright registration does confer additional legal protection, but the $20 fee is tiresome for small works. However, small works can be batched together and sent in every three months. If you are absolutely certain that you will never sue someone for copyright infringement of a particular work, you can just skip registration.

Some Terminology

Before diving into what was learned, it is useful to cover some terminology:

The person who actually wrote the document.
A copyright confers upon its owner the right to control the reproduction, distribution, and adaption of a work of art or liturature. A copyright is a form of property in that it can be transfered to parties other than the work's creator.
Copyright Duration
The duration of a copyright is how long a work is protected by its copyright before the work enters the public domain.
Copyright Infringement
Copyright infringement occurs when someone other than the copyright owner uses the owner's work without permission, excluding `fair use' usage. When infringement occurs, the copyright owner has legal recourse to collect damages from the infringer.
Copyright Notice
A copyright notice is a line of text attached to a work that indicates that the work is copyrighted. It usually consists of the copyright symbol (an encircled lower-case C) followed by the first year of publication and copyright owner's name.
Copyright Registration
Copryright registration is the act of filling out a registration form and sending it, along with the work in question, to the appropriate government copyright office.
Fair Use
Fair use is the term used in the United States whereby people may use selected portions of a copyrighted work for quotations as long as the the value of the original copyrighted material is not decreased.
Public Domain
A work that is not protected by a copyright is said to be in the public domain. A public domain work can be used by anybody and in any way without asking permission from anybody. Once a work has entered the public domain, there is no way it can legitmately placed under copyright protection in the future.
Published Works
A work is published if multiple copies of the work have become available to the public. No transfer of money is required.
Unpublished Works
An unpublished work is one that has not become publicly available. Copyright notices are not needed for unpublished works, although it does not hurt to have one.

Some Relevant History

The United States Constitution
The United States Constitution gave Congress the right to establish Copyright laws. These laws have been in effect since the 1790's. At various times, the United States Congress has adjusted the copyright laws as they deemed appropriate.

Prior to 1989, the United States required that published works have a copyright notice in order to have any copyright protection. A published work without a copyright notice was automatically considered to be in the public domain. (Yes, there are exceptions, but only a lawyer really cares.)

Prior to 1978, the duration of a copyright was 28 years from first publication. The copyright could be renewed for an additional 28 years providing a total copyright duration of 52 years.

The Berne Convention

The Berne Convention is short for `The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works' which was held in Berne, Switzerland in 1886. Countries that have joined the Berne Convention are required to provide a minimal copyright duration that is at least the author's life plus 50 years. The Berne Convention also requires basic copyright protection for published works without requiring either copyright notification or registration.

For reference puposes, the following countries have joined the Berne Convention: Argintina, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guinea, Hungary, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Senegal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, United Kingdom, United States, Vatican City, Venezuela, and Yugoslavia.

The United States joined the Berne Convention on March 1, 1989 (i.e. a full century after it came into being.) In order to join the Berne Convention, the United States had to drop its stance requiring a mandatory copyright notification in published works. Thus, as of March 1, 1989, published works in the United States that do not have a copyright notice have basic copyright protection rather than being automatically considered to be in the public domain.

The Universal Copyright Convention
The United States joined the Universal Copyright Convention (or UCC, for short) on September 16, 1955. The UCC requires a copyright notice in order to obtain basic copyright protection. The minimum copyright duration is the author's life plus 25 years.

Again, for reference purposes, the countries that signed the UCC are: Algeria, Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Denmak, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Guinea, Haiti, Hungary, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kampuchea (Cambodia), Kenya, Korea (North), Laos, Lebanon, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malawi, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Senegal, Soviet Union, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, United Kingdom, United States, Vatican City, Venezuela, Yugoslvia, Zambia.

The Buenos Aires Convention
The reference I was reading did not give a date for the Buenos Aires Convention. However, Bolivia and Honduras did sign Buenos Aires Convention whereas they signed neither the Berne Convention nor the UCC. In order to meet the requirements of the Buenos Aires Convention, the phrase `All Rights Reserved' must included with the copyright notice.
The Copyright Act of 1976 (United States)
On January 1, 1978 the Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect in the United States. This act adopted a copyright duration of the author's life plus 50 years for works published during or after 1978. Furthermore, it extended the copyright duration for a copyright renewal by an additional 19 years for works published before 1978; thus, a work published before 1978 would could get a copyright duration of (28+28+19=) 75 years.

A published work still required a copyright notice in order to have basic protection.

The Copyright Act of 198x (United States)
On March 1, 1989, the United States joined the Berne Convention. Thus, the United States no longer requires a copyright notice in order to keep a published work out of the public domain.
Other Bilateral Treaties
A number of countries have not joined any of these multi-national treaties. A partial list of such countries is China, Indonesia, Malyasia, South Korea, and Taiwan. Whenever possible, the United States has signed bilateral treaties with such countries whereby each country basically agrees to honor one another's copyright laws. The reference I was reading only specifically mentioned that China and Taiwan were covered; however, it did not provide a complete list of countries covered by bilateral treaties.

In summary, in the United States, copyright notices have been required up until March 1, 1989 in order to obtain basic copyright protection; after March 1, 1989 copyright notices are not strictly required. Again, in the United States, the duration of a copyright is 28, 52, or 75 years if the work was published before 1978 and the author's life plus 50 years for works published during or after 1978.

Copyright Notice Issues

This section discusses some of the issues surrounding copyright notices. In particular, it addesses the questions `Is a copyright notice needed?' and `What is the form of a good copyright notice?' These two questions are addressed in the same order that they are listed.

Is a copyright notice needed?

The real issue here is that in many countries a work without a copyright notice basically means that the it is in the public domain. Since it is unlikely that all countries are going to join the Berne convention any time soon, each time a work without a copyright notice shows up in a country that has not joined the Berne convention, citizens of that country are likely to treat it as if it is a public domain work. Furthermore, even though it took the United States over a century to figure out that it should join the Berne convention, the average United States citizen is totally unaware that this event occurred (I was) and still believes that works without a copyright notice are public domain and treats them as such.

Strictly speaking, if you are pretty sure that your work will never show up in country that has not joined the Berne convention, it is not necessary to have a copyright notice. Realistically, in these days of inexpensive world-wide communication and fax machines, it pretty hard to have any confidence that a published work will only be in countries that have joined the Berne convention. Thus, if you want people to treat your work as if it is copyrighted, it better have a copyright notice. Conversely, if you want your work to be in the public domain, you better attach a statement saying so, because most citizens in countries that joined the Berne convention a century or so ago are going to treat it as if it is copyrighted until they see a statement saying it is in the public domain.

So the rule I use for my own works is as follows: I ask myself the question `Do I want this work in the public domain?' If the answer to this question is `yes', I attach a statement saying the work is in the public domain; otherwise, I attach a copyright notice.

What is the form of a good copyright notice?

There are two goals associated with a good copyright notice:

The issue of a legally valid copyright notice is covered first, followed by what helps to discourage copyright infringement in the first place.

The basic strategy to employ is to establish a valid copyright in the country where the work is first published. Since all of the copyright conventions and treaties have a principle of respecting each countires copyright laws, a valid copyright notice in the initial country of publication is accepted as valid in all of the other countries covered by the treaties and conventions.

Since the reference I was reading primarly discussed copyright law in the United States, I can only discuss what a valid copyright notice in the United States looks like. It is clear that a copyright notice of the form `Copyright {year of first publication} {copyright owner}' is a valid copyright notice. It is possible to substitute the word `Copyright' with the true copyright symbol (i.e. the encircled lower-case `c'.) Also, it does not hurt to have both the word `Copyright' followed by the true copyright symbol.

In order to cover Bolivia and Honduras, the words `All Rights Reserved' are added to the end of the copyright notice.

Now I will move on to the issue of how modify the copyright notice to further discourage copyright infringement.

The advantage of the copyright symbol is that it is recognized internationally as an indication that a work is copyrighted, irrespective of what language it occurs in. Thus, whenever possible, it is desirable to get the copyright symbol into the copyright notice. The creators of ASCII did not reserve a code for the copyright symbol. Thus, for document production systems that do not have a means of showing a true copyright symbol, an ASCII approximation of `(c)' is typically used. The reference I was reading did not discuss the `(c)' approximation at all, thus, I have no reason to believe that any court will except it as a legally valid substitution for either the word `Copyright' or the true copyright symbol. However, that is not the real reason for using the `(c)' approximation; the real reason is that most people will treat the appoximation as the real thing when it comes to their recognizing copyrighted material. In conclusion, I recommend the addition, of `(c)' immediately after the word `Copyright' whenever the true copyright symbol is unavailable.

In summary, a good copyright notice to use in the United States is `Copyright (c) {first year of publication} {copyright owner} All Rights Reserved.' Whenever possible use the true copyright symbol instead of the `(c)' approximation.

Copyright Registration

In the United States, a work is registered by filling out the correct form and mailing the work, the form, and a $20 registration fee to the U.S. Copyright Office. A good place to get a photocopy of the form is at a public library. If that does not work, you can write to `Information and Publication Section LM-455, Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20559'.

Works registered with the U.S. Copyright office are retained for several years prior to being disposed of. A substantially larger registration fee is necessary to ensure that the copyright office retain the work for the full duration of the copyright. If you are infringed upon in the first couple of years, there is a distinct possiblity that the copyright office could produce the work in question thereby establishing a publication date.

If your only goal is to be able to prove in a court of law that your work was really published by the date you said it was, it appears to be quite sufficient to take a copy of the work, well seal it in an envelope, and mail it to yourself. The post mark on the envelope is treated as a legally valid timestamp.

Works that are registered within 3 months of first publication are considered to been registered in a `timely fashion' which may entitle the copyright owner to a larger damage award in a successful infringement suite.

Copyright Duration

For works published in the United States alone, the rules for copyright durataion are:

1978 and after
The copyright duration is the author's life plus 50 years. This is the minimum copyright duration permitted by the Berne Convention.
75 years ago
The United States copyright is expired the work and it is now in the public domain.
between 75 years ago and 1978
Works published in the United States before 1978 and less than 28 years ago are very likely to be copyrighted. Works published in the United States between 28 and 75 years ago may or may not be in the public domain depending upon whether their copyright was renewed. For a fee, either private industry or the Copyright office will search the public records to figure whether the copyright was renewed.

To further complicate things, many publishing houses would routinely copublish works in both the United States and Canada (a member of the Berne Convention) in order to increase copyright duration. For such co-published works, the copyright expires when both 75 years have elapsed and the author's life plus 50 years have elapsed.

Copyright Ownership

In general, the author of a work is the original owner of its copyright. The execption to this rule is when another individual or organization hires you to write the work. In this case, the work is said to be a `work for hire' and the hiring organization owns the copyright. For 'work for hire', any copyright notices should list the hiring organization instead of the the actual author.

Copyrights are a form of property that can be bought, sold, inherited, etc.


The primary reference from which most of the information in this document is extracted is `The Copyright Handbook: How to Protect and Use Written Works' by attorney Stephen Fishman. This book is published by Nolo Press, 950 Parker Street, Berkeley CA, 94710. Their phone number is 1-510-549-1976.

Copyright (c) 1993-1997 Wayne C. Gramlich. All rights reserved.