Copyright law is confusing, even for many business attorneys. But you can’t ignore it. It’s too important.
Regardless if you are a high-growth startup, a freelancer, or a small business in Kansas City, you need to take copyright law seriously. More specifically, you need to make sure you own the copyright in your works and that you don’t infringe the rights of others.
We’ll explore these issues and more in this post. (Confused about IP? See the differences between copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets, and patents in this guide.)
Copyright owners have the exclusive right to do certain things with their original works – they have the exclusive right to (a) reproduce the work; (b) distribute the work; (c) publicly display or perform the work; and (d) create derivative works of the original work.
This means they can prevent other people from exercising those rights during the duration of the copyright.
Copyright protects all kinds of works. Generally speaking they are creative in nature and include things like music, art, writings, dance choreography, and more. But it also extends to business documents, presentations, and even computer code.
However, you cannot protect an idea using copyright. You can only protect your individualized expression of the idea.
Copyrights vest as soon as someone creates an original work (of the type above) and reduces it to a tangible medium (such as a writing, saved on a hard drive, recorded on tape, etc.). You can register your work with the Copyright Office, but that is not required. Although there are benefits to registering, so it is often a good idea to do so.
The larger question is who owns the rights. This can become complicated, but here is a simple version of the law – the creator will be deemed the copyright owner unless: (a) the creator transfers the copyright to another person in writing; (b) the creator created the work in the course of his employment, in which case the employer will be deemed the owner; or (c) the creator created the work as an independent contractor and the work was designated a “work made for hire” in a written agreement between the creator and the hiring party. Learn more in this guide.
Once copyright is secured, the rights generally last for the life of the creator plus 70 years. That’s a long time. And in some situations, it can be even longer.
Copyright infringement occurs when someone, without authorization, exercises one of the exclusive rights stated above. Further, the copy doesn’t have to be identical; rather, any exercise of those rights with a work that is substantially similar can constitute copyright infringement. Accordingly, you should (a) make sure you don’t copy another party’s work (and make sure the people working for you don’t either); and (b) monitor the market to make sure people are not copying your works.
You may have heard about “fair use,” which gives people the power to use copyrighted works in certain situations without obtaining the copyright owner’s authorization. However, fair use is very limited and you should always speak to a copyright lawyer before assuming your use constitutes fair use.
(This article is general in nature and is not legal advice.)
Understanding Copyrights, Trademarks, Patents, & Trade Secrets.
IP Cheat Sheet