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Feb 10

Copyright footers – what do all those words mean?

I was thinking about copyright footers the other day (…yes, I know). They’re the little notes you see at the bottom of webpages with the © sign. You may have already heard somewhere that the © sign doesn’t really mean anything – it denotes that something is copyrighted, but it doesn’t normally need to be there in order to copyright something.

This is because copyright automatically attaches to copyrightable material as soon as it is authored. Historically, some countries required the copyright symbol to be affixed to stuff before copyright would subsist in it, but countries which signed up to the Berne Convention (most of the world) abolished this requirement.

However, if you look around the web, you’ll see copyright footers are still ubiquitous and come in a variety of different forms, for example:

© 1996-2010, Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates

© 2010 Twitter

Facebook © 2010

© 2010 YouTube, LLC

©2010 [on Google.com]

Copyright © 1995-2010 eBay Inc. All Rights Reserved.

© 2010 Microsoft

Copyright © 2010 Apple Inc. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2010 Yahoo! Inc. All rights reserved.

© 1996-2010 Morrison & Foerster LLP. All rights reserved.

©2003-2010 Fenwick & West LLP

You’ll notice that there are several variations. Some include “All rights reserved.” Some include the company’s common name (eg, Microsoft), and others the company’s full legal name (eg, Yahoo! Inc.). Some include the word “Copyright”, and they all include a year or a date range, although I have also seen notices without any date.

So, if all of this is unnecessary, why bother at all? The notices do serve one useful purpose: to give notice (duh).

Copyright notices alert viewers that they are looking at copyrighted material, which is owned by someone else. So if a viewer wants to do anything with the material which encroaches on the owner’s (intellectual) property, they should get permission first. The notices are there for the same broad reason supermarkets put up signs saying “Slippery floor” with a little picture of man in the process of stacking it – to inform passers-by. Also, to continue the analogy, the floor is wet without or without the sign – putting the sign up doesn’t make it so. The other reason is that it’s common practice. It’s almost like a social convention. We see that little circled C everywhere, so the web designer thinks it needs to be included and up it goes.

But what does all the other gunk mean?

The company name is useful in identifying who is asserting ownership the copyright. It lets people know who to approach to ask permission. A full legal name gives you the exact identity of the owning company. A “common name” may lead to a bit of uncertainty, especially in corporate groups, where there are a bunch of related subsidiaries (for example, does Microsoft mean Microsoft Corporation, or Microsoft Licensing, GP, or even some other Microsoft company in a totally different country?). If you’re Twitter Inc., however, and you only have one company, then there’s little possibility of incorrect identification if you just say Twitter. (Actually, I have no idea whether Twitter has any subsidiaries or holding companies.)

Spelling out “Copyright” appears to be completely superfluous. I imagine it’s there just by convention.

The date normally identifies when the copyrighted material was first published. Copyright has a shelf life. Normally it’s linked to the publication date on one end and the lifespan of the author, plus a period of years, on the other (so the author’s great-grandkids can keep collecting royalties long after great-grandma has kicked it). In the US, the copyright term keeps getting extended, mainly to protect Mickey Mouse. Corporate authors get a fixed term too.

I’m not sure why some companies use a range of dates, but it’s probably to indicate that the website contains a variety of material published on different dates. It also can be used as a subtle marketing tool to show roughly how long the company has been around (1995 for eBay, circa 1996 for Amazon).

The term “All rights reserved” has a bit of history behind it. Apparently, it was a product of the 1910 Buenos Aires Copyright Convention, which was a treaty between the US and various Latin American countries, containing a requirement that:

“The acknowledgement of a copyright obtained in one State, in conformity with its laws, shall produce its effects of full right, in all the other States, without the necessity of complying with any other formality, provided always there shall appear in the work a statement that indicates the reservation of the property right”

The “statement that indicates the reservation of the property right” was standardized to “All rights reserved”. Adding those three words ensured that an angsty poet sitting in America, now owned copyright in not only the US, but also in a bunch of Latin American countries as well.

Today, all the Buenos Aires Convention members signed up for the Berne Convention, which deems that all rights are automatically reserved, unless a statement is made otherwise. This rendered the words “all rights reserved” irrelevant yet they are still everywhere. Like elevator door closing buttons.

You may notice that it’s phrased as “all rights” (plural). This is because copyright is actually a general term which encompasses a bundle of rights which can be split up and individually manipulated. This bundle differs depending on the medium of the material. For books, for example, there is a distribution right, a reproduction right, a right to publicly display the work, a right to publicly perform it, and so on. The exact bundle of rights also differs between different countries. Countries also differ in what they allow to be copyrighted (although the Berne Convention requires all its members to permit copyright for certain types of subject matter, like “literary works”… although countries quibble when they differ in their interpretation of what a “literary work” is).

You may also notice that some people play around with those three used-to-be-magic words. Creative Commons uses the phrase “some rights reserved”, which is an accurate characterization of the copyright status of material licensed under a CC license. People who wish to assert less than complete pwnage of their intellectual property also use the term “copyleft” as a descriptor.

Work released directly into the public domain (ie, where the author has relinquished their copyright) sometimes uses the tongue-in-cheek designation of “No rights reserved”.

The Berne Convention effectively abolished formalities (like adding a © symbol) as a condition for copyright protection. This position has annoyed certain companies and certain academics who argue that this blanket application of copyright, even for drivel, long lost forgotten works, and even Tweets*, is stifling the flow of information in society. Sometimes we can’t use copyrighted material because the author is uncontactable, or dead, or whatever, and the would-be user can’t get the requisite permissions. One proposed solution is to make people register certain works before they receive copyright in them – the registration process is a “formality”. But I am digressing now.

Finally, the word order in the notice doesn’t really matter, except for readability purposes. You could conceivably write: “All rights reserved. Your Mum (C) 1980, 1982-2010. Copyright.”

Ok. I think that’s my cue to end now.

* A recent blog post by Zeldman boldly declares that Tweets are not copyrightable. I personally disagree. As does Arment, who also makes a oft-argued (if flawed) point about people abusing the DMCA take down notice procedure rendering the issue of whether something is really copyrightable, moot – at least in the online environment. Bill Bonk has written another legal analysis on whether Tweets are copyrightable and I think his conclusion is spot on.

† Thanks to Daryl and Hugh for their input on this post.

  12:40am  •  Law  •   •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment