If I publish something on my website is a form of copyright automatically placed on that text?

For example I know if you specifically say "This is published under [insert some cc license here]" then the copyright / usage rights are changed based on the terms of the license.

However what I don't know is what kind of copyright / usage rights are automatically applied to text?


Copyright is automatic in all countries that have ratified the Berne convention. That's most of them. Copyright applies to any creative work. The interpretation of creative work is pretty broad. For example a mugshot isn't creative work but any photo that involves even the slightest attention to posing, light, choice of subject, etc. is a creative work. A shopping list is generally not creative work, but as soon as there are multiple ways to convey the same idea, a text expressing that idea is a creative work (the idea itself, however, is not subject to copyright). Copyright exists whether the author of the work is identified or not, and whether a copyright notice is present or not.

Copyright is not a right to copy — in fact it's pretty much the opposite: it's a form of exclusive control that the author has over their work. Copyright forbids anyone other than the author from making copies of the work, except in ways that the author has chosen to permit, and except in some very narrow ways that vary somewhat between jurisdiction and are called fair use in the United States.

A license is basically a way in which the author of a work authorizes others to make copies of the work and deal with them in a certain way. A license is a type of legal contract (more or less). Typically a license may allow dealing with the work in ways that are not allowed by default, in particular making multiple copies. Conversely a license may forbid dealing with the work in ways that are allowed by default, such as modifying the work¹.

Certain ways of distributing a work effectively carry an implicit license. For example, when you buy a book, you get the right to use that book, to resell it, to write annotations in the margin, etc. When a work is displayed on a web page, this allows anyone to view it in a web browser and (in most jurisdictions, though jurisprudence may still not be fully settled) to download it for offline perusal and edit that offline copy (but not to redistribute the downloaded copy to someone else). Details may vary depending on the type of work and the jurisdiction.

This is why contributing to an open source work always requires an explicit license grant. In the absence of a license, a creative work or a derivative of it cannot legally be redistributed.

¹ In the absence of a license, modifying a work may or may not be allowed depending on the type of work, the type of modification and the jurisdiction.

  • Can you actually forbid modifying the work? For example, the CC BY-ND licence only disallows distributing the modified work. – svick Jun 25 '15 at 14:36
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    @svick Many non-free software licenses forbid modifying the work even for your own use. It isn't clear whether this will hold up to legal scrutiny in the long term. For books, the US has the first-sale doctrine, which essentially says that once sold, you may do whatever you like except redistribute copies separately; jurisprudence on whether this applies to software is inconsistent. – Gilles Jun 25 '15 at 14:53
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    @svick It seems a bit absurd to me (I'm no legal expert), but 17 USC S.106 lists "to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work" as one of the exclusive rights of copyright, so it would seem that making a derived work (even without distributing it) could be legally actionable (if anyone ever found out about it and cared). In terms of damages, though, there's virtually none, so it's unlikely to see a courtroom – apsillers Jun 25 '15 at 14:55
  • So from what you said, would that imply that it's generally good practice to have both a copyright (c) sign AND a license under it... (eg Apple opensource stuff has the 'Copyright (c)... All rights reserved' in their headers but then go on to say that it is published under the Apache license)? – G.Rassovsky Jul 3 '15 at 8:37
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    @G.Rassovsky Yes, it's good practice to have a copyright notice, and I think it's required if you put a license declaration (if you aren't the copyright holder, who are you to grant a license?). As far as I know, “all rights reserved” is a remnant from a time when some countries granted broad rights to recipients unless this notice was included; it has no use under the Berne convention, which most countries have ratified. – Gilles Jul 3 '15 at 10:56

Copyright exists from the moment you put 'pen to paper' (figuratively speaking). The means of publication does not generally determine your copyright rights.

The actual rules and rights of Copyright vary based on jurisdiction, but in general:

Anything you create is subject to copyright laws

  • This post
  • Every email you send
  • A letter to your friend
  • The menu at your favorite restaurant
  • At the extreme, the shopping list you just wrote
  • The doodles on your notepad

You may also want to look at this question for the differences between Copyright and Licensing

Text of any kind generally gains the same copyright protections as a full length novel.

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