The Ins and Outs of Copyrights and Trademarks for Satire Sites
You have copyrighted your Web site and its contents, right?
Sorry, that is a trick question. Under current law, you don't have to do anything. The mere act of creating a literary work gives you ownership. Problem is, in a dispute you would have to prove that you created the work, and when. So, it's best to be in everybody's face from day one, leaving absolutely no doubt that you created the work, and when.
Run through this checklist:
- Prominently displayed at or near the top of every page on the your Web site is a link that says "Copyright" or something similar and that takes the visitor to a Web page where your site's copyright notice is presented.
- The copyright notice page spells out in clear terms that everything on the site, right down to your dog's name, is copyrighted by whatever legal entity you are using - your name, a limited liability company, corporation, or whatever. It also makes clear under what conditions someone can use a portion of content found on the site without asking your permission and when they need permission.
- Every article on the site that is an original creation of yours bears a copyright notice.
- If you have a site map or navigational device at the bottom of the home page, or the bottom of every page, it includes a copyright notice.
- Every copyright notice uses the word "copyright" or the copyright symbol, denotes the current year, and lists the entity that holds the copyright. In my case, for example, the notice reads: "Copyright 2005 Smithtown Creek Productions All rights reserved." On January 1, I will change it to read "Copyright 2006."
- If you publish the work of others, you have a clear, documented understanding of who owns the copyright of this material, whether solicited or not, and how any revenues derived from the work will or will not be shared. A signed agreement is preferable.
If you can say yes to all the items on the list, then you are protected - more or less.
Here's Catch No.1: If someone infringes your copyright and you decide to take them to court, you first will have to register the infringed work with the U.S. Copyright Office. In the simplest case, this involves filing a form, attaching a copy of the work, and paying a $30 fee, but this must all occur within five years of the publication date. After five years, you still own the copyright, but proving ownership could become more difficult.
Catch No. 2: The smart money will register a literary work within three months of its creation. That way, if you drag someone into court and win your infringement case, you will be entitled to both statutory damages and attorney's fees. Otherwise, you will receive only an award of actual damages and lost profits. This means that when you're shopping for a lawyer to sue someone for stealing your work, he or she isn't going to be interested in taking the case on a contingency basis. You'll pay legal fees - up front, in the middle, and afterwards - whether you win or lose.
O.K., so you decide to register your work, or your site. You'll find everything you might ever want to know at the U.S. Copyright Office's web site. Browse the site and you will quickly discover that while recent changes in copyright legislation specifically protects online works, it is not clear how satire sites should proceed.
For example, if you write several pieces of original work each week, you might choose to register each piece. You fill out a form for each, pay a $30 fee, and send a copy of the work. In my case, I publish three articles a week at Satirium, so I would be looking at a cost of $90 a week. Some writers groups, the Author's Guild, for example, recommend to their author members that they register all their new works every 90 days. Following this suggestion, I would pay $1,170 each quarter, or $4,680 a year.
Alternatively, you might choose to register under the online provisions of the copyright law. But there is no provision to register a Web site and its contents, per se, where the content is constantly changing. Some satire sites that publish new content daily would be expected to register frequently, even daily, at $30 a whack. Some satire sites might be able to register as a serial publication, but the fee for registering each edition is $15 with a $45 minimum.
There's one more possibility. In some cases, a frequently updated online work "may constitute an automated database," according to the Copyright Office's Circular 66 Copyright Registration for Online Works. Take a look. It might be the registration loophole for many satire sites. If you could convince the copyright examiners that you are an automated database, each three-month period could be registered with a single application and a $30 fee. Circular 66 as a PDF file is located at http://www.copyright.gov/circs.
I suspect that most webmasters will chose not to register, finding the cost, not to mention the paperwork, excessive. Not to worry. You're still protected, though in the case of a serious copyright infringement involving potential big bucks, you're on the hook for your own legal fees. The copyright version of ambulance-chasing, contingency-fee lawyers won't be drooling over you because they won't have a shot at making the other side pay exorbitant legal fees.
The Shantytown Named Trademark
You have a terrific site name. The domain name that closely or exactly reflects the site name is locked up for 100 years. No one can infringe that, right? Wrong. Have you trademarked your site name? That charming and very distinctive logo, that's protected, right? Wrong again. It should be trademarked, too. To protect the oceans of time you've invested in your site, you should apply for a trademark, or trademarks. A sharp operator could take it away in the blink, or at least make a claim to it and tie you up in court for years.
The U. S. Patent Office supervises trademarks. The fee for a basic trademark is currently $335. If you want to use a single trademark that includes words (the name) and a design (the logo), then the fee is two times $335, or $670. The complexity and costs rise the more you try to protect. Want to lock up your name and logo so that you can use both on T-shirts sold from the Web site? You can trademark T-shirts for another $335. Isn't this fun? You've already spent more than $1,000 and you haven't sold a single T-shirt.
The good news is that you can start selling the T-shirts immediately and skip all the trademark expense. There is no requirement that you have a trademark. The danger is that when you have built your T-shirt business up to 1,000 shirts a day, someone could register the trademarks and shut you down, or at least drag you into a legal nightmare. Learn all about it at http://www.uspto.gov.
Here's a scary exercise: search the trademark database at uspto.gov and see if someone already owns the trademark you expect to use with your satire site when you get around to applying for a trademark.
Finally, here is a cautionary trademark tale. Several years ago, someone registered domains based upon the names of famous authors. For example, this individual owned tomfriedman.com (Tom Friedman is a New York Times columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner, and bestselling author.) The Author's Guild took legal action and in due course a panel of arbitrators ruled that because of the authors' fame, their names were trademarks and that the domain name speculator had to give them back their name-based domains. It was a major hassle to get your own name back.
Yes, many avert their eyes and speed on by this unpleasant locale named Trademark.