When Do You Need a Copyright Notice on Software (And Where Do You Place It)?

Copyright notices can scare away potential infringers, alerting them to the fact that you are aware of your intellectual property rights.

By , J.D. | Updated By Brian Farkas, Attorney

If you design or code software, your intellectual property is critical to your business. After all, your primary product is your original code. If that code is used or misappropriated by a competitor, your business will directly suffer. One relatively easy strategy for preventing infringement is the use of copyright notices.

A copyright notice should be placed onto all published software. Although not mandatory, using such notices costs nothing and may help to deter infringement, because the notice advises third parties that the work is protected by copyright and cannot be copied without your permission.

Notices can also help you win greater money damages if you successfully sue someone for copying your software.

When Is Software Considered to Be "Published"?

A work is "published," for copyright purposes, when copies are sold, licensed, rented, lent, or otherwise distributed to the public. It is relatively easy to establish that your software is "published."

Selling copies to the public through retail outlets (including online downloads), publishing code in a magazine, selling a program at a widely attended computer show, and allowing a number of educational institutions to use your program without restriction are all examples of publication.

Although the law surrounding online software and apps continues to develop, making your software broadly available through these channels normally qualifies as publication. Accordingly, all such programs should carry a proper copyright notice in order to achieve maximum copyright protection.

However, publication occurs only when software is made available to the general public on an unrestricted basis. Distributing copies of software to a restricted group of users (such as your own development team), might not constitute formal publication. For example, sending copies to a few friends or beta testers would not constitute a publication.

Similarly, software licensed to a select group of end users who sign license agreements that impose confidentiality requirements is probably not "published" for notice purposes. The same is true if you give your software to employees for testing.

Finally, publication does not occur for copyright notice purposes when software is made available only for use on a time-shared computer system or displayed on a computer terminal (for example, in an online library catalog).

If unsure whether your software has been published for copyright notice purposes, the best course is to assume that it has been, and include a copyright notice. There is generally little harm in doing so.

Form of Copyright Notice on Software

There are technical requirements as to what a copyright notice must contain if it's to serve its purpose of preventing an innocent infringer defense ("I had no idea this code belonged to you!"). The U.S. Copyright Office has published a helpful guide to understanding the permissible text.

A valid copyright notice contains three elements:

  • the copyright symbol ©, or the words "Copyright" or "Copr."
  • the year of publication, and
  • the name of the copyright owner.

For example, the copyright notice might read: "©, 2019, Jane Doe." It is not required that these elements appear in any particular order in the notice, but most notices are written in the order set forth above.

Where to Place Copyright Notice

Every component of a published software package should contain a copyright notice. This includes:

  • the package or box the software comes in, if any
  • the manual and other written documentation
  • the computer disks or other media containing the software (if any), and
  • the appropriate computer screens.

Placing a Copyright Notice on Packaging

Most published software that is not distributed online (for instance, through Apple's "AppStore") is typically sold in some sort of box or other package.

A copyright notice should appear somewhere on the box; often on the back of the box, but you can also place it on the front or sides. The notice will apply to your cover art and graphics as well as to the software and other materials inside the box or package.

Placing a Copyright Notice on CDs and DVDs

Although fewer and fewer companies use CDs and DVDs to sell software (preferring direct downloads), these remain important sales mechanisms. A copyright notice should be printed on a label permanently affixed to CDs, DVDs, or other media containing the software.

Including a Copyright Notice in Computer Code

If you license or otherwise distribute your source code you should, at a minimum include a copyright notice on the first and last page. Even better, include a notice on every page.

Also place a copyright notice on the first page, and liberally sprinkle notices throughout the remainder of the code. This way, anyone who prints out the code will see that you claim copyright in it.

In addition, use a confidentiality legend in conjunction with your copyright notice.

Showing a Copyright Notice on Computer Screens

According to U.S. Copyright Office regulations, providing a copyright notice on the box or disk containing published software is sufficient. But you can do much more, particularly if your software is not sold in a box. Remember, you want to make sure that users do really see your notice.

It should appear somewhere on the computer (or phone) screen when the software is used. This can be done in one or more of the following ways, including by:

  • printing the notice in or near the title of the program or at the end of the program
  • displaying the notice when the program is first activated (on the opening screen or in an about or credit box), or
  • displaying the notice continuously while the program is being used (for example, in a status bar).

A good rule of thumb is to display the notice on the screen at the beginning and end of a program, as well as every time the program title is displayed. Also include a notice in any "Read me" files.

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