copyright notices: dating your work

A friend emailed us recently asking about the legit way to use dates in copyright notices. Her specific question went like this:

If I copyright an artwork in 2013 and it gets applied to a licensed product in 2015, which date is listed on the item for copyright?

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Remember that you automatically own the copyright in your work as soon as the work is complete. And since 1989 there’s been no requirement for putting a copyright notice on your work.

One of the primary purposes for listing copyright information on your artwork or product is to “give notice” that the work is protected by copyright. It will notify others that there is a person behind the work (i.e. you) who may show up in the event the work is used without your permission.

Perhaps most important, the fact of having used such a notice on your work may come in handy if you ever need to show that someone knowingly infringed your copyright. If there’s no notice on your work, an infringer can claim they’re an “innocent” infringer, meaning they had no idea the work was under copyright. But if you can show that your work contained a valid copyright notice it’s more likely you’ll be able to establish “willful” infringement, meaning that the infringer knew what they were doing. A finding of willful infringement normally results in a larger, often much larger, damage award. The things is, a valid copyright notice requires an accurate date of first publication. Publication is the distribution and offering for sale of copies of your work. So if you started offering your work for sale in 2013 and you’re now licensing it in 2015 the notice should read © 2013 by {Your Name} to be valid.  

A product manufacturer who licenses your work for use on her product should also be required (by the terms of the license agreement you’ve signed with her) to display a copyright notice on that product—for the same reasons listed above. The copyright notice on a product may also serve as a form of artist credit (i.e. acknowledgement and/or attribution), so it’s the right thing to do from that perspective as well.

Occasionally, one might be tempted to put a later year in the copyright notice than the year of actual creation. This could be to imply that the art and/or product design is new/current, whereas the original art creation date may have been many years earlier. While this is understandable from a marketing perspective, it could have the effect of muddying things if you’re in a situation where you need to establish the true copyright date, so we don’t recommend it. If the design on a licensed product has been changed enough to be considered a derivative work, then a newer copyright year in the notice could be legitimate and serve the marketing purpose as well.

We would love to answer your questions! Send 'em our way via the comments below, or shoot us an email. Either way, we'll do our best to answer promptly.


Please remember: The information provided on this blog and throughout our website is intended for general educational purposes only. While some information on this site relates to the law as a topic, it's not intended as a substitute for legal advice. Only a lawyer, selected by you and fully informed of the facts relating to your particular situation, can render legal advice.