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Many years ago, probably some time around 1990, a lawyer was sent around my employer (in the UK) to brief all the programmers about the need to include a proper copyright notice at the top of every source code file, including the "©" c-in-a-circle copyright symbol.

We programmers tried to explain that the ASCII character set did not include the copyright symbol, and hence our practice was to use "(c)" c-in-brackets. The lawyer replied that this was not acceptable, it had to be a proper c-in-a-circle, and it was up to us techies to figure out how to do it. Needless to say we let him go on his way and carried on using "(c)" because there was nothing else we could do.

According to Wikipedia the US Copyright office has always accepted "(c)", but it says nothing about other countries. And there are still some countries that are not signatories to the Berne Convention.

These days of course putting the proper symbol in source code is not a problem as long as your programming tools can handle Unicode. But I have always wondered: why was the © symbol so important then, and is it still important now?

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  • Do you want answers to be specific to "is the symbol necessary?" rather than the broader "is a copyright notice necessary?" – Studoku Mar 12 at 10:53
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    Its the symbol I'm particularly interested in, and especially if the difference between (c) and © really matters. Question updated to clarify. – Paul Johnson Mar 12 at 11:00
  • To the best of my knowledge (c) and the copyright symbol are equivalent. But I don't have authority on point. – ohwilleke Mar 12 at 14:45
  • @ohwilleke That's correct. See below. – bdb484 Mar 12 at 15:43
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WRT UK law, the strongest evidence that the symbol © was required in the UK, prior to the current law, is very weak. The Universal Copyright Convention (1952) states, Art. III

Any Contracting State which, under its domestic law, requires as a condition of copyright, compliance with formalities such as deposit, registration, notice, notarial certificates, payment of fees or manufacture or publication in that Contracting State, shall regard these requirements as satisfied with respect to all works protected in accordance with this Convention and first published outside its territory and the author of which is not one of its nationals, if from the time of the first publication all the copies of the work published with the authority of the author or other copyright proprietor bear the symbol © accompanied by the name of the copyright proprietor and the year of first publication placed in such manner and location as to give reasonable notice of claim of copyright.

The UK is an original signatory of this convention.

If the discussion is in terms of UK law prior to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, then the applicable law is the Copyright Act of 1954. An extended study of that statute might reveal an obscure requirement to include the symbol ©: a reasonably diligent search of the original text does not reveal any such requirement.

The 1952 convention states that if registration etc. is required then inclusion of the date and symbol © does constitute reasonable notice. The convention does not mandate that there can be no protection if the symbol is omitted. There appear to have been no registration requirements for literary works ("registered designs" are a separate matter). I find no aspect of UK law that mandates use of a particular symbol.

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    So the concern of the lawyer I described would make sense if the issue was with protection in other countries; if I understand correctly, without the copyright symbol our source code would be protected in the UK but possibly not elsewhere. – Paul Johnson Mar 12 at 18:08
  • That is the most reasonable rationalization that I can see. – user6726 Mar 12 at 21:02
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The exact timing of this story makes a bit of a difference, as you're placing the story right around the time of the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988, which changed the rules for works first published after March 1, 1989.

Before then, most copyrightable works were only treated as protected if they included a proper copyright notice, which required the copyright symbol (or "copyright" or "copr."), the year of first publication, and the original copyright owner. So if this happened in February 1989, the lawyer was correct that you needed to include "a proper copyright notice."

But he was probably mistaken to think that your rendering was problematic. The copyright symbol required was the same circled C that you mentioned, but the Copyright Office will also recognize a variant on the symbol if it "resembles the © closely enough to indicate clearly that the variant is intended to be the copyright symbol." The office's current guidance makes clear that your variant would be sufficient:

Acceptable variants include:

  • The letter c with a parenthesis over the top.
  • The letter c with a parenthesis under the bottom.
  • (c
  • c)
  • (c)
  • The letter c with an unenclosed circle around it.

Examples of unacceptable variants on the © symbol include the following:

  • CO
  • C
  • C/O
  • @ (i.e., the letter a in a circle).
  • The letter c with a circle attached to the bottom of the letter.
  • The letter c in a square.
  • [c]

The same was true under the guidance that would have been in effect at the time. See section 1005.01(c)(6).

If the advice came after March 1, 1989, the notice would not have been strictly necessary, regardless of how you rendered it.

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    I said in the question that the US copyright office had always accepted (c). What about other countries? (I'm in the UK, but the question is global). – Paul Johnson Mar 12 at 15:47
  • Ack. I totally missed the UK designation. – bdb484 Mar 12 at 21:28

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