Updating Copyright Notices

Question: I recently updated some written materials in a manual I’m producing, and I’m not sure whether to update the copyright date, too. Currently, the copyright notice in the manual says “1998.” Should I change it to “2000” or just leave it alone? Does it really matter?

Copyright notices are one of the easiest things to understand in copyright law, but for some reason they’re often misunderstood.

A copyright “notice” is simply a few words that provide the public with useful information about copyright ownership in the work to which the notice is attached. Although it looks simple, care should be taken when composing a copyright notice, because it can have legal consequences.

Although commonly used, U.S. copyright law does not require you to include a copyright notice. But, there are advantages to including a copyright notice, so it’s important to know how to write one properly. Under U.S. copyright law, a valid copyright notice generally consists of three elements:

  1. The symbol ©, the word “Copyright,” or the abbreviation “Copr.”;
  2. The year of first publication of the work; and
  3. The name of the copyright owner, or a recognizable abbreviation or generally known alternative designation.

Here’s a copyright notice for this column: “Copyright 2000 Doug Isenberg.” Despite the apparent simplicity of these required elements, each of them can contain traps for the unwary. This column focuses, obviously, on element #2.

Generally, the “year of first publication of the work” refers to the year in which the work (such as an instruction manual) was first distributed to the public. So, a manual written and distributed companywide in 1998 should obviously contain 1998 in the copyright notice.

That’s the easy example! But what about your question: What happens when the manual is revised? Interestingly, the Copyright Act doesn’t directly say. But the commonly accepted practice is to include multiple years in the copyright notice, indicating the various years in which various material in the overall work was first published. So, if the manual was originally published in 1998 and new copyrightable content was added in 2000, the year portion of the copyright notice might be “1998, 2000.” If new material was added in 1998, 1999, and 2000, the year date might be “1998, 1999, 2000”–or, more simply, “1998-2000.” (Unfortunately, this practice defeats one underlying purpose of the copyright notice–to let the public know when copyright protection began–because it’s often impossible to determine what portions of the manual, for example, were first published in 1998 and which in 2000. That’s why some attorneys might recommend that single-year notices be used and placed at different locations throughout the manual. Or that additional descriptive information be provided along with the copyright notice. But that’s the subject of another column!)

You might be tempted to ask: Why not just change the date to the most recent year and delete the earlier date(s)? Well, first of all, you’d be creating an inaccurate copyright notice. (Not all of the material was first published in the most recent year, right?) And, more importantly, the law will punish you for doing so. According to the U.S. Copyright Act, if “the year date [in the copyright notice] is more than one year later than the year in which publication first occurred, the work is considered to have been published without any notice….” The consequences, though not fatal to copyright protection, can be significant, so it’s important to use care when deciding what date(s) to include in your copyright notice.

For further reading on this topic, visit GigaLaw.com.

Note: The material in this column addresses a general legal issue only; is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such; and may or may not be appropriate to a specific situation. Laws and procedures change frequently and are subject to differing interpretations. This column is not intended to substitute for obtaining legal advice from competent, independent, legal counsel in the relevant jurisdiction. If you want legal advice, please consult a lawyer. This column is not intended to create, and does not create, a lawyer-client relationship. You should not act upon anything in this column without seeking professional counsel.

An attorney practicing intellectual property and Internet law in Atlanta, Doug is the editor and publisher of GigaLaw.com, a Web site that provides legal information for Internet professionals, high-tech entrepreneurs, and the lawyers who serve them. Doug is licensed to practice law in the state of Georgia. In the "Ask the Lawyer" column, Doug answers legal questions of interest to the technical writing community and provides resources for finding more information.

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