United States: New Copyright Compendium Provides Some Answers For Website Owners

Last Updated: September 14 2014
Article by Mark Sableman

If you are looking for answers to copyright questions, the Copyright Office's newly issued 1,222-page "Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices" might seem like a good resource. The book, issued on August 19, 2014, to become effective in December 2014, is only the third edition ever of the copyright office's complete administrative manual.

But don't get too excited. This hefty manual lacks answers to many of the copyright questions foremost among Internet users. It mentions the top Internet copyright issue —  fair use — only three times, and gives no fair use explanation or advice whatsoever. Another major copyright doctrine that affects practically every website, implied license, gets only one page of discussion. On these and many other issues, the compendium simply notes that many copyright issues depend on courts, and "it is important to consult court opinions on copyright-related issues."

Despite its limitations, the manual, which focuses on issues that the copyright office handles in the course of processing applications for copyright registrations, is helpful on some Internet-related copyright concerns.

For example, what kind of works can be registered? The law requires some creative originality, but sets a relatively low standard for that creativity. Not surprisingly, applicants have tested the limits over the years, and in addressing those applications the copyright office has developed a number of standards:

  • A work must be created by a human being. Photos or art by animals don't qualify. Neither do pure representations of nature — an actual animal skin, or a piece of driftwood, for example.

  • More relevant to computer users, works produced by machines or a "mere mechanical process" won't qualify either. That includes analog-to-digital transformations, transposing a song from one key to another, and even mechanical weaving processes — even when random elements are programmed.

  • Typefaces, and variations of typographic ornamentation, are not copyrightable (on the theory that they are utilitarian) but computer programs that generate typefaces can be protected. Letters, punctuation, musical notes, and arrow symbols are similarly identified as excluded — presumably because someone, sometime, tried to register a copyright in each of them.

  • Exact copies of another work can't be copyrighted — a position that puts into question the common but puzzling copyright claims often asserted for museum reproductions.

  • Minimal authorship contributions (labeled "de minimis" by the Latin-educated Compendium authors) don't qualify. This includes changing pronouns from masculine to feminine, portraying a concept in Venn diagrams, and using standard contract language. Also, interestingly, "simple diamond stud earrings, simple hoop earrings, and other jewelry designs that contain only a trivial amount of authorship," clock chimes, and "Mi do re sol, sol re mi do."

Copyrighting websites

Internet users, and particularly those who create and publish content on the web, may find one section of the Compendium fairly helpful. Chapter 1000, titled "Websites and Website Content," lays out the office's policies for registering website content.

First, the chapter discusses the problem of identifying authorship of a website, and notes that when independent contractors (such as website design firms) contribute to it, they automatically own the copyright in their contributions, and the party that employed their services must obtain a written copyright transfer if it wishes to become the copyright owner. This conclusion is based on basic copyright ownership principles, which are too often overlooked by website operators.

Thus, website operators need to take special care to follow copyright formalities if they want to control and own the content on their website. They'll automatically have rights to content created by their employees, under the work for hire doctrine. But for content created by third-party contractors, or users, they will need to obtain written copyright transfer agreements or enter into a proper work-for-hire contract before any work is created. (Another quick reminder for companies using third parties for website creation: Make sure you own your domain name.)

What about user generated content? The compendium notes that users, like third-party contractors, are authors of their own content, and hence automatically own the copyright to it. But often website operators seek to capture ownership of user generated content through website terms of service. The compendium states that for now, the copyright office accepts those terms as effective, so long as there is a written digitally-signed transfer agreement. But such transfers won't work for anonymous, pseudonymous, or unidentified authors.

What's protected, what's not

Next, the compendium identifies three layers of potential copyrightable authorship on a website: (1) visually perceptible content, (2) compilation authorship, meaning authorship in the way the various content elements were selected, coordinated and arranged, and (3) the underlying markup language or style sheets that underlie and support the content and make it viewable through a browser. In this third category, standard HTML code, generated by design software, is unlikely to be recognized as the creative work of the website designer.

The compendium notes that websites are naturally dynamic, in that they "may change over time as often as and to the extent that the website owner wishes." Because copyright only adheres in works "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" — as opposed to  works like live performances — the office therefore registers website content "only as it exists as the time that the application is received." 

The compendium also identifies those elements of websites that are not protectable under copyright law. Ideas, functional design elements, domain names, hypertext links, and the "look and feel" of a website all fall outside copyright protection.

Finally, the compendium gives practical guidance on how one should go about registering a copyrights in websites. Perhaps because websites didn't fit in established pre-Internet categories of copyrighted works, and perhaps because of their dynamic nature, and questions about the proper specimen to submit with a copyright application, many website creators or owners have neglected to register their copyright interests in their websites. Those excuses no longer work.

The compendium provides 20 pages of tips for registering your website copyright. If you haven't been protecting your website copyright interests, that's the part of the compendium that you should turn to first. It begins on page 634.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

*** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.