Understanding Copyrights, Trademarks, & Patents (And How They Affect Your WordPress Business)

Posted on June 13, 2017 by in Tips & Tricks | 21 comments

Understanding Copyrights, Trademarks, & Patents (And How They Affect Your WordPress Business)

Copyrights, trademarks, and patents are somewhat complex topics. However, they each can have an effect on the way you run your WordPress site, which makes understanding their basics important.

The good news is you don’t need to hit the law books to figure out how each of these elements impacts you. In this article, we’re going to discuss the difference between copyrights, trademarks, and patents, and how WordPress is licensed. Then, we’ll talk about what elements of your site you need to protect and how to do it. Let’s get to work!

What’s the Difference Between Copyrights, Trademarks, and Patents?

Before we dive into how these elements affect your WordPress site, it’s important to know what their differences are. For now, let’s keep things simple and talk about them one by one:

  • Copyright. Think of this as proof of ownership over the content you create. For example, if you’re running a WordPress website you can copyright your graphics and content (and we’ll talk more about this later on). On top of proving you’re the owner of your content, copyrights also govern how others can reproduce, imitate, and distribute it.
  • Trademark. Unlike copyrights, trademarking isn’t about protecting your content, it’s all about your brand. Using this method enables you to claim your website’s name, domain, logo, and any other symbols representing your brand. That way, other people can’t use them to deceive your visitors and customers without breaking the law.
  • Patents. This type of protection is reserved for unique business processes and technologies. However, you can’t patent a website as a whole (in the vast majority of cases).

Before moving on, let’s talk a bit more about patents. There’s a common misconception that almost any idea can be patented, but it’s not quite true. In fact, it’s likely you won’t be able to obtain a patent for your product unless you can prove it’s unique (and non-obvious).

To put it simply, if you run a simple WordPress website, you probably don’t need to think about patents. That is unless you’re offering a service you can prove is unique and innovative. If you just want to protect your intellectual property, copyrights and patents are the way to go.

How is WordPress Licensed (And How Does It Affect You)?

Most of you probably know that WordPress is open-source software. What you might not know is that it’s available to the public under the GNU General Public License (GPL). Let’s break down what this means:

  • You’re free to run the platform for any purpose you want.
  • You can have access to the platform’s code and modify it to suit your own needs.
  • It can be freely redistributed. This means you can share the platform with other users if you want, instead of having them download it directly from the developers.
  • You can also redistribute the platform including any modifications you’ve made to it.

This last point is particularly important for you as a WordPress user because it also covers ‘derivative’ works. In WordPress’ case, both plugins and themes fall into this category. It means you can create either of those two options for any purpose, and distribute them without having to pay the original developers.

Plus, if you’re a developer, you can also charge any price you want for your plugins and themes. The only caveat is that they must be made available under the GPL license as well without any additional restrictions. This is where things get a bit confusing if you’re a WordPress user or developer, so let’s discuss what this means for you:

  • You only need to adopt the GPL license if you plan to distribute your plugins or themes. If they’re meant for private use or a particular client, that doesn’t apply to you.
  • If you want to, you’re free to charge extra for technical support and other similar tasks. That’s why you often see plugins and themes available for purchase under limited-time licenses. In that case, you’re not just selling your work, but also your expertise.
  • You can sell your work. However, according to the GPL, once someone purchases it they can also distribute and charge for it.

If you’re a developer, you might be worried about that last point we covered, so let’s elaborate using an example. If you create and distribute a WordPress theme under the GPL (which it must be), anyone who purchases it can legally access its ‘source code’, modify it, and redistribute it. In WordPress’ case, that refers to its core PHP files.

What they can’t do is copy any other part of your work, including bundled graphics, and CSS customizations. That means they can’t just take your theme and resell it under the same name to pocket the profits. In that case, they would be breaching its license and be open to legal action.

Do You Need to Copyright Your WordPress Website?

An example of a copyright notices.

Copyright notices can help you dissuade would-be copycats from stealing your content.

Technically, you don’t need to copyright your WordPress website – at least not under US law. That’s because websites are considered ‘original work’, and they’re copyrighted from the moment they go live. The same law applies to other types of creative work as long as you document them in a way you can prove, such as writing them down or recording them.

The question is, if you don’t need to copyright your site, why do so many pages on the web bother to include notices to that effect? A lot of them do so as a deterrent to would-be copycats, while others may include them because they actually went to the trouble of registering their copyright.

While a copyright isn’t strictly necessary for every site, it can come in handy. At least in the US, registering this proof of ownership makes it much easier to prosecute anyone copying it. For other countries, the situation could get muddier – so we recommend doing some research with an expert in your particular nation’s law.

What Elements of Your WordPress Website Should You Protect?

We’ve already talked about copyrighting your site, but that isn’t the only thing you can do to keep it safe from a legal standpoint. Let’s check out some of the other elements you can protect and how to do it.

Your Logo, Site Name, and Slogan

These three elements are a big part of what makes up your overall brand, which makes them perfect candidates for trademarking.

An example of a logo.

The Elegant Themes logo is a good example of an element that should use a trademark.

To register a trademark in the US, you’ll have to go through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). To apply for one, you’ll need to submit a representation of your mark that includes its name and any designs associated with it (such as logos and other related icons).

However, keep in mind that the USPTO enables you to register each of these components separately if you want to do it. This means you can have a trademark for your logo, another for your site name (and URL), and one for your slogan. Doing this provides you with more protection if you decide to mix those site elements.

Keep in mind, registering a trademark with the USPTO isn’t free so you should only do it once your site gains a little traction and you’re sure the investment is worth it.

Your Written Content and Images

We’ve already talked earlier about copyrighting, so let’s get to the practicalities. Copyrighting your website protects both your written content and your images by making it easier for you to bring legal action against copycats.

A blog post index.

Your content is your site’s most important asset, and copyrighting it can help you protect it.

The only issue is that while copyright terms can be quite long, they don’t necessarily cover all of your future content. In fact in most cases, they only establish ownership for your website at the moment you register a copyright. That means you’ll need to update your registration periodically if you want to protect your content as strongly as possible.

To do this on American soil, you’ll need to deal with the U.S. Copyright Office. Just as with trademarking, they’ll charge you a fee to register your copyright, so keep that in mind.

If you want to be practical, we recommend waiting until you have a sizable library of content before copyrighting your website. That way, you’ll get the most out of your investment, and in the meantime, you can still include a basic notice at the bottom of every page to dissuade copycats.


Copyrights, trademarks, and patents don’t need to be an obscure subject. In fact, understanding how they affect you and your WordPress website is fairly straightforward. Plus, it’s important to be aware of what you need to do to protect your content from intellectual theft.

Here’s how those three elements can impact your WordPress day to day operations:

  1. Copyrights: One of the best way to protect your written content and images.
  2. Trademarks: These are the way to go for protecting aspects of your site such as your logo and name.
  3. Patents: In most cases, you won’t need a patent for your site unless you’re selling a truly unique service or application. 

Do you have any questions about copyrights, trademarks, and patents related to WordPress? Ask away in the comments section below!

Article thumbnail image by venimo / shutterstock.com

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  1. Thanks for this information; it was a helpful breakdown. A question about including a basic notice at the bottom of a website to deter “copycats.” What kind of notice do you recommend; can you provide an example? Also, would this include the copyright symbol (©) or can you only use that if you have an official government issued copyright?

    • Hi Ryan! A simple “© Your Name” or “© Your Business’ Name” should do the trick (you could also add the current year, but you don’t have to). You’re free to use the © symbol, at least in the US, since technically your work is copyrighted as soon as you create it.

  2. Thanks for this article, very helpful to me. If you will/can answer the following copyright/trademark questions for me?

    I am writing a children’s eBook that will be on my WordPress website. I have used a few finger puppets and dog chew animal toys (all purchased on Amazon) as primary characters within my photographic eBook with other “real” woodland animals (moose, ground squirrels, deer, etc.) I then used a filtering technique that makes all of the photos look like a storybook that has been painted.

    You probably know my questions by now:
    — What copyright/trademark laws could I be potentially be violating?
    — With the book?
    — By putting the eBook on my WordPress website?
    — How can I protect my eBook work?

    Any advice or direction you can provide is extremely appreciated.

    • You’re welcome, Nora! Of course, we can’t provide official legal advice. However, you may run into some copyright issues over both the book and the site, since you’ve used and altered images of other company’s products (which would likely be considered their own intellectual property). Take a look at this article for some more detailed information: http://www.wipo.int/sme/en/documents/ip_photography_fulltext.html.

  3. I have done a LOT of research into copyright for other (non-website) issues, and here’s what I’ve learned. (Be aware I am NOT an attorney, but this comes from much research, including reading ALL of U.S.C. Title 17, the Copyright Law of the United States.

    Every intellectual property is automatically copyrighted from its moment of creation, with the copyright being granted to the creator, until the creator assigns it to someone else, UNLESS that work was being done for hire, in which case if there is no provision otherwise, the copyright belongs to the employer.

    Two things to keep in mind here:

    1 – In your contracts with your website clients, there should always be a clause stating something like this: “Except for copy and images furnished by [the client], copyright in all content, design, and code for [the website] remains with [the designer].”

    This way, you keep the copyright for the things you create.

    2 – Even though you OWN the copyright to the things you create, if someone ever steals it, you need to be able to prove you created it if you want to prosecute them. The best way to do this is to register with the Copyright Office. However, certified dated backups of your site might suffice if it comes to that. Witnesses – people who can testify they know you created the content.

    My experience so far has been no one ever steals my stuff. Except once, and I checked it out and decided I don’t need to worry about that. I could never recover a fraction of what it would cost me to pursue.

    Therefore, I content myself (so far) with placing a copyright notice in the footer section of my Divi websites.

    You may consider the same.

    • Thank you David for your insight and expertise!

    • Thank you sir for this insight. I will include this sentence in all my future proposals.
      I’m new in web design, so here’s another legal question (unrelated but you seem to be someone with experience so I dare to ask):
      I send the (potential) customer a proposal signed by me with a description of the project and a price. I have a dotted line for the customer to sign and send it back to me to accept the terms, but they never do. They just pay the first deposit and we start the project.
      Anything wrong with that? Can we assume that the customer accepted my terms by paying the deposit? My terms are pretty vague I guess, I want them to know they can have two points in the project to make modifications, I may not be able to change every aspect of the website to their liking and so on. Still, some customers change important stuff around half way in the project and I have to work double it seems. Any help is appreciated!

  4. Thank you, John. Very insightful!
    I guess there are a lot of people who struggle with the differences between the thress (including ourselves). This article at the very least gives good pointers into the directions that matter.

    • You’re welcome! Thanks for your commment. 🙂

  5. Thank you for a very informative post. I would add two things to the discussion.

    First use: this is the standard in the US for determining implied protection of creative works and of trademarks. In other words, if you can prove first use of the material, subsequent users can be shown to be infringing. Sometimes this obviates registering the property/works.

    Service marks: in the US there is a distinction between protection for products/brands and services. While quite similar in law and in practice, services should use the (SM) notation as opposed to the (TM) notation.

    Again, worth having an attorney review your approach.

    • Hi Patrick, thanks for your input! You’re right that it’s always smart to get a professional opinion if possible – this is a complex topic.

  6. Great info. It may be worthwhile for a part 2 – Use of Trademark, Copyright symbols. When to use the TM mark, when to use the R mark, when to use SM? Are they needed? Is the R mark worthwhile opposed to just the TM mark? What steps to take if you find someone copied your work or TM? Cost to prosecute? Damages you can expect to collect? Can you protect your YouTube video? Can the little guy with no money defend his work?

    This is a good subject for web developers/designers. Lot of questions. Thanks.

  7. Thanks John for the insight about this sensitive subject !

    • You’re welcome! Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  8. Hi John

    Richard from WP and Legal Stuff here. Good article 🙂 I think one aspect isn’t quite right though. It’s these two paragraphs:

    “If you’re a developer, you might be worried about that last point we covered, so let’s elaborate using an example. If you create and distribute a WordPress theme under the GPL (which it must be), anyone who purchases it can legally access its ‘source code’, modify it, and redistribute it. In WordPress’ case, that refers to its core PHP files.

    What they can’t do is copy any other part of your work, including bundled graphics, and CSS customizations. That means they can’t just take your theme and resell it under the same name to pocket the profits. In that case, they would be breaching its license and be open to legal action.”

    A few points your readers might find helpful:

    (1) If someone creates and distributes a theme under the GPL, the extent to which the GPL applies to the theme’s contents depends on how the developer (in this case) applies the GPL to the theme. It is common for developers to apply the GPL to the entirety of the theme (including all non-PHP files), not only its core PHP files. In that case, the GPL would also apply to the likes of CSS and images; anyone who gets the theme would be entitled to copy and use anything in the theme folder, including the likes of images and CSS.

    (2) If a theme is 100% GPL licensed then, from a GPL perspective, someone can take it and resell it. They need to be careful how they do it but, from a GPL perspective, they can do it. The name/brand-related issues are separate to the GPL. Selling someone else’s theme under the same name can create issues in tort law and trade mark law but, as I say, these are separate areas of law. Note that the GPL does not permit the recipient of GPL’d code to infringe another person’s trade mark.

    (3) A distinction between the core PHP files and other separable files like images and CSS does exist. The Software Freedom Law Centre’s opinion on the application of the GPL to WordPress themes makes the point that the core PHP files must be licensed under the GPL (as they’re derivative of WordPress) whereas things like images and CSS can be licensed under the GPL but don’t have to be. This is why what’s crucial is how a developer actually applies the GPL to his or her theme.

    Hope this helps. I’ve written about all this stuff in detail on WP and Legal Stuff if anyone is interested.

    • Hi Richard! Thanks for the detailed insight – you make some very good points that should be of interest to other readers. This is a complex topic that can take some time and research to really wrap your mind around.

  9. Hi John

    This is really a very informative article and a complex subject to understand precisely but your article is really useful. Thanks

    • You’re welcome! Thanks for your comment. 🙂

  10. HI, Thanks for this article. However I have a question related to what is put at the footer of the page. Am I allowed to remove any reference to WordPress and Divi and put something like this only

    © 2015 Copyright “CLIENT COMPANY NAME” | Powered by “MY COMPANY NAME” ?


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