Some people believe that if a work does not bear a copyright symbol, then that work is not protected by copyright law. This is not true. In most circumstances, the use of the copyright symbol is not mandatory. However, the symbol © is used universally to identify a copyright-protected work and to indicate its copyright owner. The symbol is not required in the leading copyright convention, the Berne Convention (to which 164 countries belong), but remains a requirement in another copyright convention, the Universal Copyright Convention. The information in this article discusses Berne member countries’ use, or non-mandatory use, of a copyright symbol. The U.S. and Canada are members of Berne.
Reasons for Using a Copyright Symbol
In general, a copyright symbol is a reminder to the world at large that copyright exists in the work. It identifies the copyright owner and therefore may help people who want to use the work to locate the copyright owner and obtain permission to use it. Also, it shows the work’s first year of publication.
Using a copyright notice does not require copyright registration of a work or any specific permission or rubber stamping. In other words, do not assume that you can locate the copyright owner by searching the records of your country’s Copyright Office just because there is a copyright symbol on the work.
In countries like Canada and the U.S., the symbol is not mandatory however there are incentives to use it. In Canada, use of the symbol provides evidence in a court action that the alleged violator should have known that copyright existed in the work. In the U.S., use of the symbol precludes an alleged violator of copyright from submitting that he did not know that copyright existed in a work. In the U.S., works published before March 1, 1989 were subject to different rules and the copyright notice was mandatory, though corrective steps cold be taken if it was omitted on a published work.
Elements in a Copyright Notice
There are three elements in a copyright notice. First, the “c” in a circle, ©, or the abbreviation “Copr.” or the word “copyright” should be present. Second, the name of the copyright owner (not necessarily the author) should be included in the notice. Third, the year of first publication should be set out. These elements need not necessarily appear in this sequence. An example is: © Mary Clark 2012 or Copyright © Mary Clark 2012
The year to include in a copyright notice should be the year of first publication of the work. First publication is when the work is made available to the public without restriction. This includes selling a book or leaving free copies of it in a public place, but not sending sending copies of a book to a publisher or circulating copies internally to co-workers. For compilations or derivative works which incorporate previously published content, the year of first publication of the compilation or derivative work is sufficient.
New versions or editions of works should contain the publication date of the new version or edition. For constantly evolving websites and blogs that contain works published over several years, the notice may include a range of years (e.g., 2001-2012), starting from the date of the oldest published elements and ending with the date of the newest published elements.
A copyright symbol is not usually used on an unpublished work but may be used, and instead of year of publication, the year could be the year the author distributes the work in some manner. The symbol could indicate this with the following wording: Unpublished work © 2011 Mary Clark.
At least in the U.S., the year may be omitted from the copyright notice where a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work, with or without text, is reproduced on greeting cards, postcards, stationery, jewelry, dolls, toys or any useful objects.
Placement of the Notice
The copyright notice should be clearly placed in a manner and location best suited to alert the user of the work in question to the fact that copyright subsists in the work. This can vary depending on the type of work involved. For a website, a suitable location for the copyright notice may be on the home page, or on a page that appears by clicking through to a specified copyright or legal notices page, or both. For instance, website owners may include a simple copyright notice on its home page and perhaps on other pages of its website, with a click through to a more detailed copyright and legal notices page. If you are looking for the copyright notice, go to the bottom of the home page and check the listed links for copyright notice or legal disclaimers, etc.
For works published in book form or periodicals, the notice could be placed on the title page, the page immediately following the title page, on either side of the front of back cover, or on the first or last page of the main body of the work. The notice should be in a manner and location that is conspicuous and will not be missed by a casual observer.
The Sound Recording Symbol
Sometimes you see a p in a circle on a sound recording. The p in a circle is used like the ©, but only with respect to sound recordings. The reasons for marking a work with p in a circle are similar to those for marking a work with ©. The notice should be placed on the label attached to the recording, or on the cover or container accompanying the recording, or both.
In addition to a copyright symbol, some include a “copyright warning” or additional copyright-related information on any copyright-protected works. The warning/information may be as simple as:
For requests to use this copyright-protected work in any manner, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call xxx.xxx.xxxx.
More comprehensive copyright warning/information may refer to concepts like fair use and fair dealing, and may mention whether permission is required for non-profit and non-commercial uses of the work. Most print publications and websites have some form of copyright warning/information and in determining what uses are permitted without further permission, read through this information.
For further information on international copyright law, look at the online course on Global Copyright Law Principles.