Copyright Law and SEO Part 1

What is Copyright and why would an SEO care?

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is a legal right granted to the authors of certain artistic or creative works. I’m sure that wasn’t very helpful, so allow me to explain: it literally means “the right to copy”. This “copying” can be in the form of translated or derivative versions, reproductions, public or private distributions, displays, or broadcasts.

SEO’s encounter copyright issues all the time. One of the most important things we bring to a client – unique, effective, keyword rich content – is the very thing copyright law serves to protect. A computer can’t just spit it out. It is this creative element that helps to make a site stand out well on the search engine rankings. Google isn’t interested in indexing the same content over and over again, and it also removes computer generated “landing pages” whenever it finds them from it’s results.

By offering fresh, informative content to the search engines and the visitors, the SEO (and SEO aware copywriter) helps a website achieve high rankings without the costs of pay per click, banner ads, and other forms of advertising. This translates into more money in your clients pocket for the same (and often better) results and traffic. Naturally this content is worth a lot to your client, and by extension, you.

Unfortunately, there are many persons in the world who do not respect basic principles of fairness, sometimes due to issues of moral bankruptcy or deliberately criminal behavior, and sometimes due to an inability to understand what the big deal is.

Rather than coming up with their own content, they would rather steal yours. Even worse, once they have stolen your content, it’s no longer “unique” and therefore not as likely to be ranked highly – in some cases you could be dropped off the results all together, if the infringers site is older than yours.

Copyright infringement has become even more prevalent since the beginning of the computer generation. In the past, the copyright violator had to go through some effort and expense in order to, for example, copy a painting or record a musical number. Today a perfect digital image of an original picture, literary work or sound recording can be copied and transmitted to millions of people almost instantly. The ease of this transmission, along with it’s high quality, has lent itself to a whole new generation of people who seem to feel that anything that can be found on the internet is or should be free for the taking.

How Do I get a Copyright?

Easy – do something creative and original and commit it to some form of recording. An oral speech is not copyrightable, but as soon as it’s recorded or written down, that recording is automatically copyrighted. There is no need to register something in order to obtain copyright protection.

You can’t copyright: ideas, equations, thoughts, names, data, or things that should instead be patented, trademarked, or registered as an industrial design.

You can copyright: web copy, articles, musical recordings, video recordings, photos, designs, computer programs and most artwork.

How Do You Prove Your Work is Your Own?

One way is to register it. This is a method by which you take a copy of your work (for example, put your website on CD) and register it with a third party who can provide proof that you had this information as of a specific time.

There are several reasons to register your copyrighted material — first, you have proof on file. Second, registration creates an automatic assumption in the courts that your copyright is valid and that all your statements in the application for it are true. Third, in the US you are then able to take advantage of several statutory advantages that are not available otherwise.

If you don’t register it, your options are more limited, but they are available. Some people use the Wayback Machine to show an approximate publication time, but if your site is new or not indexed it may not help you. You can also point to file dates and so forth, but as you can imagine on the internet these things are easy to forge.

Some Popular Misconceptions

In the old days, if you didn’t have a copyright symbol and date on your copyrighted work you were in trouble. This is no longer the case in most countries. The format is usually:

Copyright © 2003 Your Name. All Rights Reserved.

It’s really hard for an infringer to stand up in court and say he didn’t know it was copyrighted when this notice is at the bottom of the pages he stole the content from. In order to receive protection under the Berne Convention, you were originally required to use the © symbol, but most countries have changed that requirement. I would strongly recommend using it though.

Remember that if you become aware of a copyright infringement and choose not to enforce your rights, you may find yourself prevented (“estopped”) from complaining the next time. Always defend your rights. Even if it’s minor, at the very least tell them you want permission asked for the use.

Fair Use and other Defenses

There are times when you can legitimately use someone’s copyrighted materials. But since this is also one of the automatic defenses infringers use, it’s important to know what fair use is, and isn’t.

Fair use (also called fair dealing in Canada) basically covers the ability to make copies of a work for “legitimate” purposes. This includes the ability for you to print off a copy of a web page at home for personal research purposes, and for public review, criticism or news reporting.

It does not cover the copying of all or substantially all of a work for public display. In short, if you rip off an article or artwork from someone else’s website, and then make some minor formatting changes and perhaps alter a byline and a bit of text, and then post it as your own, you are clearly and obviously infringing copyright.

There is a very fine distinction between fair use and infringement, and there is no specific amount or percentage that is “safe”. Quoting a few lines is safe, quoting the whole article is not. In Canada, fair dealing for criticism, news, or review requires a full citation to the original author. This is not required in the US, but I would recommend it anyway.


If you want effective copyright protection on your work, do this:

  1. Create an original and creative document – web copy, website design, or artwork.
  2. Once you have created this work, place a © copyright notice on it.
  3. Register the work in your home country (if available), and perhaps the USA as well.
  4. Defend your rights consistently and vigorously

In the next article, I’ll discuss what to do if you find out someone has been infringing your copyright.

This article was first published in the High Rankings newsletter.

Unless otherwise noted, all articles written by Ian McAnerin, BASc, LLB. Copyright © 2002-2004 All Rights Reserved. Permission must be specifically granted in writing for use or reprinting anywhere but on this site, but we do allow it and don’t charge for it, other than a backlink. Contact Us for more information.