The copyright symbol, or ©, is a fixture on most websites and generally any commercialized media subject to copyright. While the use of the symbol is not actually required under U.S. copyright law, there are a number of reasons to use it.

At one point, the copyright symbol was a requirement without which a work would not be protected by copyright. However, the Copyright Act of 1976 did away with copyright formalities as applied to new works, and those pre-existing works (such as certain foreign works) that failed to use of the copyright symbol were in danger of falling into the public domain. However, copyright protection for those works was restored under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, which was passed in order for the U.S. to join the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. That effective “restoration” of copyright protection was recently affirmed as a constitutional act of Congress under the Copyright Clause in Golan v. Holder.

Despite the fact that the use of the copyright symbol is not required, it serves a number of functions. The use of the symbol informs the public that the work is protected by copyright, it identifies the copyright owner, and it shows the year of first publication. Informing the public of the work’s copyright protection may serve a deterrent effect when it comes to infringing activity, and information as to the owner may encourage permissive use in accordance with copyright law. Also crucial is that the use of the copyright symbol will prove beneficial of a copyright owner seeks to enforce its rights in a lawsuit against an infringer. In such a case, a defendant will not have an “innocent infringement” defense, i.e. that the defendant infringed but was not aware that the work was subject to copyright protection.

Keep in mind that while the © symbol is by far the most well-known copyright symbol, it is not necessary to use that symbol in order for authors and owners to enjoy the benefits mentioned above. Rather, merely writing “Copyright” will serve the same purpose, provided that the year of publication and the name of the owner is provided as well. Furthermore, regardless of what combination of symbols and information is used, it is important that such information be conspicuously displayed so as to provide reasonable notice of the copyright protection. A hidden copyright symbol will not afford any of the benefits mentioned above, as it does not place would-be infringers on reasonable notice as to the copyright protection to which the work is subject.

Finally, keep in mind that while a registration with the U.S. Copyright office is certainly recommended for various reasons outside the scope of this section, it is not required for use of the copyright symbol. Because copyright protection springs from the moment that a work with a modicum of originality is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, such as a piece of paper, a server, or a compact disc, registration is not required for copyright to exist. Thus putting others on notice of those copyright right is not only permissible absent registration, but is encouraged.