Hearing the excitement in my clients’ voices: “Finally, I finished my script”, or “I just made up my mind on my new logo”, or “I have a movie I just shot”, or “I have a brand new design for the product line I’m selling” or “I just finished my website” is music to my ears. Such excitement is generally followed by: “How do I protect my work?” or “I don’t want anyone to use my work without my permission.” So what can legally be done to protect your intellectual property?
You may have heard of copyright law provided by the laws of United States. Copyright is a form of intellectual property law which protects original works of authorship. This generally includes performing arts, literary, visual art works, dramatic, musical, artistic works, poetry, novels, movies, songs, architecture works, computer programs, and the registrable content of a “website”. (Please consult an attorney for a complete list and explanation.) Copyright is created the moment you create a work that is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which [it] can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or indirectly with the aid of a machine or device” [17 U.S.C. § 102(a)] whether it is published or not. However, copyright does not protect facts, systems, ideas, or methods of operation, although it probably may protect the way and how these things are expressed. According to Section 102 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the U.S. Code): “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” In another words, expression of facts and ideas are protected but not the ideas and facts.
Some may ask if copyright protection applies to my work automatically as soon as I create it, then why should I register it with the U.S. Copyright Office? While registration may not be necessary, it does have its advantages. Registration, provides a public record and establishes its validity. If you want to file an infringement case in federal court for a U.S. work, you need to have registered it first. Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office also enables you to claim costs, attorneys’ fees and statutory damages when you file your case.
Copyright notice is optional for unpublished works and foreign works and while since March 1, 1989, applying a copyright notice to copies of a work hasn’t been required, it may still be beneficial. For example, it gives notice to the public, identifies the owner and may prevent “innocent infringement” defense. Notice is a statement usually with the copyright symbol or (p) for phonorecords or the word “Copyright”, or the abbreviation “Copr.”, the name of the copyright owner, and the year of first publication. Notice on a work is not a substitute for registration.
You may also have heard of “poor man’s copyright” where one tries to establish the date of creation of a work, for example, by mailing it to oneself. First time I heard of this, I was very excited as “I thought is there a way to save money and get this process done quicker that I didn’t know about?” Alas, to be clear, there is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection. You cannot send a copy of your work to yourself as a substitute for registration with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Finally, if you create a work while you’re working for a company in the course of your employment or if someone has engaged your services as an independent contractor then you, as the creator of the work, are usually not the copyright owner. This is known as a “work made for hire,” and it gives copyright ownership of the work you created to your employer or the person who commissioned your work. For instance, if you, as an employee of an organization, draw an illustration for that organization, then the organization is the copyright owner not you who is the actual creator of such illustration. So if you’re thinking of creating work while working for someone else, you may want to make that clear in your employment or engagement agreement before commencement of your services or your employment. In conclusion, it may be wise to seek the counsel of an attorney to guide you through the process.
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