You cannot Copyright CSS
icon32.png Posted: 03 Nov 2012 22:58

As a hobbyist website developer using Wikidot, Wordpress, and Shopify, I'm often looking for pieces of CSS that I can use for a project. I draw a distinction here between development and design in which the focus is on the design, IE… CSS.

Most of the time there are no copyright claims and even with editing, I usually leave attribution in place to give credit to the original developer. Lately I've been seeing false notices for CSS work. If you have wondered whether or not you can protect your CSS or whether or not you can use the CSS developed by someone else then keep reading.

Posting a false copyright claim is illegal

In researching this I've learned that claiming a false copyright claim is a criminal offense and is punishable with a fine of up to $2500. This does not include any civil suit that might be attached.

Any person who, with fraudulent intent, places on any article a notice of copyright or words of the same purport that such person knows to be false, or who, with fraudulent intent, publicly distributes or imports for public distribution any article bearing such notice or words that such person knows to be false, shall be fined not more than $2,500. 17 USC § 506(c).

Given that the fine is so small, anyone can slap a copyright notice on their work. And most publishers do. In fact, they often use a blanket copyright notice, even when all or part of the work is in the public domain.


Copyfraud is a form of copyright misuse and may include any of the following:

  1. Claiming copyright ownership of public domain material.
  2. Imposition by a copyright owner of restrictions beyond what the law allows.
  3. Claiming copyright ownership on the basis of ownership of copies or archives.
  4. Claiming copyright ownership by publishing a public domain work in a different medium.

Non Claims

In addition to copyfraud, I've seen a great deal of strange claims that do not fall within the realm of intellectual law. For example, I recently read this notice on a CSS theme for wikidot:

Copying this code, taking just a little piece of this code, or resale & redistribution is strictly forbidden!

Unfortunately this is copyfraud, not to mention invalid markup for posting a claim. Note the portion that reads "taking just a little piece of this code … is strictly forbidden!" This person would have you believe that you can never use this code on any of your sites:

a { color: #0A549E; }

That is a portion of the CSS from the site in question. That code is used to declare the color of a link and since the developer is claiming that no portion of the theme can be used, he is essentially trying to claim that no one but himself is allowed to use this color in a link. Of course we know this is false.

You CANNOT Copyright CSS

So now that you have a basic understanding of copyfraud, you should know that you cannot copyright CSS which means every CSS copyright claim you see is copyfraud. Don't believe me? Just send your CSS off to the copyright office and see what happens. ;-) CSS is not protected by copyright laws due to software restrictions. Software copyright is quite a bit different from standard literary copyright.

CSS is not protected by copyright law because in order to be protected the code must generate machine code in the "executable". Executable being a .exe file or any other executable format such as Linux or Mac 'executables' as well as executable code generated from HTML and other languages that generate HTML code like asp and php. CSS is not "machine code", it is a style sheet language used to control how the content is presented by defining the layout, colors, and fonts.

You can protect trade dress which includes overall design (images, code, behavior, interaction, look and feel) as a trademark of "trade dress". Trade dress is the way you (or a company) diversifies itself and its product from other similar ones. This would include any CSS that is part of your "trade dress". Of course this requires that you have a trademark and for that you need a business because a trademark is a symbol, word, or words legally registered or established by use as representing a company or product.

Sadly, many armchair lawyers without a formal education on the topic say otherwise. Many of these individuals use CSS and simply don't want anyone to copy it and make it a point to interpret the law in their favor. My sources for this information includes direct contact with the United States Copyright office and Frank Barbaro Law.