Copyright Laws for Web Copywriters: A Quick Guide to Legal and Implied Practices

Guide contents:

What rights to your digital material might you retain?

As a web copywriter working at various levels of the online content food chain, you will benefit most if you know the basics of copyright, what content you can consider yours and what content typically becomes the property of your client.

This topic as covered here is less about what’s “legal” and more about the common and often accepted practices on the web currently.

For a full, if convoluted, explanation of U.S. digital copyright, you can visit and/or bookmark the U.S. Copyright Office.

Basic Copyright Issues for Web Copywriters

For our basics, Let’s outline two general types of copyrighted web content or works:

  1. The digital copy you create for yourself, to which you’ll attach your own name, including your business website, white papers and reports with your name on them, feature articles you may produce for digitized publishers/publications, your personal website(s) and more.
  2. The digitized web copy you’ll produce for clients which is intended to become their property; including their blog, their website copy or text, their sales letter, their product landing page, their press release, etc.

Copyrighting Web Copy with Your Name on It

According to U.S. Copyright laws, the digitized copy you produce with your name attached to it belongs to you unless you transfer the copyright to someone else. You are not required to officially register this copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, but it is a best practice for which you’ll reap most benefit should you ever need to legally defend your rights. You can officially register your copyright—for a fee-- at the U.S. Copyright Office’s online site.

Do you need to officially register your copyright to retain ownership? In many cases web copywriters indicate ownership with the internationally recognized copyright symbol: © followed by your name, sometimes including a year. For the most part this is sufficient. Most legal experts however, suggest that a legal battle would be much easier to wage and win if you have registered an official copyright. Best advice: if it’s a work of yours that’s valuable, then register the copyright.

Copyrights and Your Clients

What about that 10, 50, even 1000 pages of informational web copy you produced for a client? What about the landing page you poured your heart and soul into specifically for a client’s product line or service? What about that sensational 15-page sales letter you cranked out for a client’s business services? Do the copyrights in any of these instances belong to you?

Theoretically any original online work of text that you create “belongs” to you. Of course it’s implied that works like this are intended to belong to your client. Some clients may ask you about copyright and in many contract situations your client may spell out legally that all copyright belongs to the client.

Frankly, if you have problems relinquishing your ownership for the types of work listed above, then you should not be pursing this type of work. Legal or not, the competition is fierce at this level and there are many other writers – all over the globe--willing to crank out generic web content without a copyright argument. The bigger argument here could be the intellect and ethics of your clients.

The term “implied copyright” might best describe the situation in which you engage with a client to produce web copy or landing page copy or even sales copy without mention of any copyright terms. Again, legally no such “implied” license exists, but you better bet that many clients will expect the work you produce to be his or hers free and clear once payment has been made for your services rendered. For the time being, this is generally the law of the internet jungle.

Creative Commons Licenses

According to the CC website:

“Creative Commons is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to making it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others, consistent with the rules of copyright.

“We provide free licenses and other legal tools to mark creative work with the freedom the creator wants it to carry, so others can share, remix, use commercially, or any combination thereof.”

When you create a Creative Commons license you stipulate what type of use you allow for your content:

Within these broad definitions you can formally create one of 6 formal CC licenses for your work, with constraints based on attribution and derivation.

Basically a CC license is designed to allow others some definable degree of creative access to your work to share, remix and reuse.

Clarifying Copyright and Use with a Client

Suppose you want to be specific and up-front about copyright and use of the written digital work you create? What can you do to clarify your position and your rights?

What happens if you produce 1000 pages of web content for a client and at some later date he or she converts it to a book or a video script or derives some different use for it possibly with his or her name on it, possibly generating an even greater income from this work you originally wrote? What happened? Theoretically you thought it was going to be used for web copy, and hadn’t imagined they’d parlay your hard work into a completely different work – a derivation—from which they are now making money.

Here is the perfect situation in which it could help to have created a formal copyright and use agreement with your client. In a nutshell you might make it clear that they are free and clear to use the work as web site copy, or that for which it was originally intended, but any derivation is prohibited, without permission, license, additional payment, etc.

Consider the value of drawing up formal copyright agreements with your clients. Again, you will find a slew of online marketers that will balk and choose to find a writer willing to produce without any talk of copyright. Should you enter into an official contractual work relationship to produce copy, make certain the copyrights are spelled out somewhere in the text of the contract. You will have to judge for yourself when to impose formal copyright constraints. You could include in your copywriting business terms verbiage about copyright so any prospective clients are immediately aware of your requirements.

Resources:

U.S. Copyright Office Copyright Registration for Online Works
Creative Commons Wiki