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What is a Copyright?

Welcome to part three in our series on what business owners need to understand about intellectual property law, and how to use it to their advantage.

Why should you bother concerning yourself with copyright law? Bottom line – you don’t want people stealing your stuff. For the same reason you lock up your office at night and use other security measures for your physical property, you want to protect the intellectual property held in your business. Copyright laws are one way of protecting that intellectual property.

With that in mind, here are a few things entrepreneurs should understand about copyright laws and what you can do to protect and benefit from your intellectual property.

  • Copyright protects creative work that has been “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” In other words, it’s not just the creative idea itself, but the idea put down in writing, sound or image.
  • Copyright is not forever. United States Copyright law stipulates that intellectual property created after 1978 is copyrighted for the life of the creator, plus 70 years.
  • Copyright laws cover books, movies, sound recordings, blog posts, emails, drawings, photographs… even computer code. Pretty much anything that can be described as a tangible medium of expression.
  • Copyright registration is not necessary, but it can save you some headaches. Copyright is technically granted from the moment you create something. But by registering the copyright, you have clear legal recourse and can more easily collect statutory damages and attorney’s fees in the event of litigation around that copyright. Rule of thumb: Anytime you have a work that you think will be valuable in the future, or that has clearly shown value, it’s probably time to go ahead and register that work.
  • You don’t need a lawyer to register a copyright. You can do it right now through the US Copyright Office. For more than one registration, or if you have more than one creator attached to the intellectual property or similar complication, consulting a lawyer familiar with copyright law might be in your best interest.

Copyright law grants copyright owners six exclusive rights:

  1. to reproduce (make copies of) the copyrighted work;
  2. to prepare new versions and adaptations of your original copyrighted work (this is also known as the derivative work right);
  3. to publicly distribute the copyrighted work;
  4. to publicly perform the copyrighted work;
  5. to publicly display the copyrighted work;
  6. to digitally perform copyrighted sound recordings

Here is the upshot: registering a copyright makes ownership crystal clear. Only the copyright holder has a right to use a copyrighted work. All others must seek permission from the owner to use a copyrighted work. Copyright law also stipulates monetary penalties for using someone’s copyrighted work without permission. Fines are based on a court determination of financial damage to the copyright holder.

If your work is copyrighted in the US, international treaties provide protection for copyrighted work in most countries around the world.

The law provides some amount of insight into copyright ownership in complex situations. One complication in copyright law that business owners should be aware of is around the issue of “works for hire”. If an employee creates website content, a brochure, or code used in the businesses proprietary software, for example, the copyright is generally held by the business and not the individual employee.

Is it a perfect system? No. Led Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven has been in court for several years with no resolution as of this writing. An otherwise forgettable 60’s era band called Spirit had produced a song called Taurus prior to the release of Stairway to Heaven, in which a section sounded very similar to the intro to Stairway to Heaven. Spirit sued in 2014, and the case was thought to be settled but brought back in 2018 for retrial.

Things in copyright law can get pretty funky and having a registered copyright is not a guarantee of a perfect outcome, but it will protect your intellectual property from outright theft – and as we will explore in the next article – it can bring financial reward as well through the beautiful art of licensing. In this way, authors, musicians, artists, coders, and others can license the use of their copyrighted works as a means of earning income from their creations.

Stay tuned!