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I know CSS on a website is protected under the website's copyright since it is considered part of the overall design. I also know that images used in CSS are copyrightable.

How about when CSS is used to create images?

There is a CSS3 icon set that has a $25 license fee. Another developer claims those images to be copyrighted and that it is illegal to use any of the icons unless you pay the fee. I say you cannot copyright a chunk of code and if I recreate an arrow or disc icon in my CSS (whether I copy his code or write my own) he has no recourse.

Can CSS, by itself, be copyrighted?

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    Where? In the US? UK? Germany? Copyright is a local thing. – webjunkie Aug 9 '10 at 15:28
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    Copyright is a very fickle thing. Are you asking only about countries that have joined the WIPO? I think this is a great question, hopefully you can narrow it down a bit? – Tim Post Aug 9 '10 at 16:00
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As with all legal questions, ask a lawyer.

However, as far as I understand the issue (which may not be very far) any creative work is subject to copyright. This would include such items as CSS styles sheets if your are copying them verbatim (even if modifying them somewhat or replacing parts of them).

CSS is in this aspect no different than source code for example.

The effect of that CSS is however not subject to copyright, so if you reproduce the same effect without relying on the actual code then you should be fine.

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    I'd say this is quite a gray area. On one side, design can be copyrighted and the effect of CSS produces the design.. however, the result of a computer program can not inherently be copyrighted. I'd definitely consult a lawyer if you worry about being sued or something. (or just use a different design) – Earlz Oct 27 '12 at 3:53
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I say you cannot copyright a chunk of code

All code (and this includes CSS) is copyrighted as it's a creative work, and all creative works are automatically copyright.

Even these words I'm typing now are copyright, but by using this site I'm agreeing to these terms by which I give up some of my rights to them. However, they are still my words.

If you copy someone else's code you are breaking copyright. However, if you write your own you're not - though by copying the "look and feel" you might encounter problems if you're intent was to mimic and "pass off" (but I'm not a lawyer).

  • You own the copyright to the post as a whole. You don't own the copyright to the words "are copyright even I'm now these typing" or even those words in order "Even these words I'm typing now are copyright". I see a chunk of CSS the same as a word or sentence - copyrightable as part of a larger whole but not in and of itself. – Emily Aug 9 '10 at 13:16
  • @Emily - You can plagiarise without copying the whole text, just a sentence or phrase. – ChrisF Aug 9 '10 at 13:26
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    @Emily Yes, no one owns copyright on specific words and similarly no one owns copyright on (for example) a specific class name in a CSS file or on the assigning the value 10em to a font. It is the assemblage of words or (in our case) CSS rules that is subject to copyright. The more you 'borrow' the more likely you are to infringe. Ripping an entire page from a book would be subject to copyright for example, while using any of the individual words (and even some fairly generic phrases) would be perfectly alright. – Kris Aug 9 '10 at 14:58
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    The CSS is copyrightable as has been said. The result of the CSS might be protected as a trademark. – Dennis Williamson Aug 9 '10 at 19:01
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    @elbrant - in the UK, any original works you produce are automatically under copyright protection from the moment you create them. You don't need to register, pay, apply or anything. See gov.uk/copyright – Rory Alsop Jan 5 at 13:34
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Here is a legal explanation.

Basically, other than the concept of "Trade Dress" CSS can not be copyrighted. Literary copy-write laws do not apply to CSS or JavaScript.

I looked at a lot of discussions about this, and this link contained the most researched, reasonable sounding, and thought out I could find.

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In the U.S., yes. The (HTML, CSS, XML, PHP, etc) code that is used to design a website, or any attribute of the same can be copyrighted. The cost varies and the copyright ownership lasts for 70 years past the owners death, but can be transferred to a new owner (similar to selling your car).

Here's the thing. Adding a claim of copyright on your website Copyright © All Rights Reserved isn't copyright protection. You actually have to file the code with the Library of Congress, make your payment, and keep your copyright document safe enough that it doesn't fall into the wrong hands. So, if the site, who is offering a license for their icon set, has not filed the copyright... you can do it (thereby stealing it out from under them). Then you can force them to stop selling a license to the icon set that you (effectively) own.

If, on the other hand, they filed for a copyright to protect the icon set, and according to the Copright Law of the United States of America (circular 92, which I obtained online through the Library of Congress):

§504 a) ... an infringer of copyright is liable for either--

  1. ... actual damages and any additional profits..., or
  2. statutory damages, as provided in subsection (c).

Subsection C goes on to indicate that damage ranges between $750-$30,000, but that it can go as high as $150,000USD. Of course, it's not unlikely for courts to add attorney fees and court costs to those figures.

So, it might be worthwhile to do some research and find out if they own the copyright or not. If they do, $25 is a lot easier to pay than the potential $150,000+. It's a matter of how far you want to take it.

Note: Your website's copyright is essentially a copyright to the way you used the code to represent your site. So, you don't own HTML or any other language (unlesss you create one and then copyright it). But you would own the way you used it to represent the website to the viewing public. So, this person's CSS code could be copyrighted in that it created the icon set. My website is different because of the way I wrote it, etc.

Words, btw, cannot be copyrighted. Or trademarked. A trademark is (essentially) an image of a word (like a logo), but the word by itself is under public domain and available for free use.

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