With the advent of the Internet it has become easier than ever to steal, copy, or pirate another’s work. Because of this, it is more important than ever to have increased copyright knowledge and protection. And, since designers work almost solely in the world of creating original work, their very livelihood can at times rest upon their ability to defend themselves from copyright infringement.
Quick Disclaimer: The following is not legal advice. Legal advice deals with specific cases of law and legal action. I am not a lawyer and am not qualified to give legal advice. Instead, these are general facts about the law, which is ever evolving. For dealing with any legal matters, or legal advice, please contact an attorney.
What Copyright Is
The first thing every designer needs to know about the copyright law is just what copyright is. Copyright is the law protecting the exclusive rights of a creator’s original work. It sounds straightforward, but at times it can be rather confusing.
Essentially, copyright law in today’s realm is meant to protect original creative work from unauthorized copying, adapting, or publishing. It protects the sole right of the creator to copy, distribute, publish, and display, and sell the work as they choose.
The Difference Between Copyright and Trademark
Trademarks are used by companies for recognition. They are typically a word, phrase, symbol, device, or name used for recognition purposes. In effect, trademarks are a symbol used for quick recognition by a corporation or entity.
Copyright, on the other hand, deals with any original work, not just a company’s symbol.
What Can’t Be Copyrighted
Purely mechanical, clerical, or factual information.
Work that is not sufficiently original. General lyrics or poems like “Want you so bad baby” don’t pass the test.
Ideas, systems, operations, or procedures.
Works that have already had their copyright expire
Lastly, copyrighted items that are used in fair use conditions
Fair use is an exception to copyright laws. Fair use was made to allow copyrighted material be used without the owner’s permission, in so called fair use circumstances. In the United States, these are mostly limited to education uses, new reportage, and satire/parody.
The exclusive rights granted by copyright are temporary. However, that is a matter of decades rather than days or months. Copyrighted work will eventually move into the realm of public use, but typically the author/creator maintains their exclusive rights for an extended period of time, often as long as they are alive.
Owner of Copyright Work
As a designer, it is important to know when the work you create should fall under the protection of copyright, and whether you own the rights to the original work.
Typically speaking, it is always the creator of the original work who owns the copyright, even if allowing the work to be used commercially. However, if the designer is employed by a company and specifically designs something for the employer, the company typically owns the copyright.
Whether the designer keeps the copyrights while self-employed is largely the designer’s decision. The designer has to legally assign the copyright over to the client in order for the client to legally get full control of the copyrighted material. However, most clients typically expect the copyright as part of a package deal with their payment.
The Need to Register
In the United States original work doesn’t need to be registered to enjoy the protection of copyright. However, there are some very serious benefits to registering any valuable, unique, or original work with the US copyright office.
Although all original works are protected under copyright law, whether or not they were registered, it is the registration that makes copyright infringement easy to prove. To this end, the US government will cover the legal fees for a copyright infringement case if the original work is registered with them.
So, the creator of original work could press a copyright infringement suit against someone violating their copyright protections. However, an unregistered creator would have to pay the legal fees themselves, and wouldn’t be awarded any money as just compensation. The registered owner would have their fees paid by the US government, and would more than likely receive statutory damages in the form of money, which isn’t something an unregistered owner can expect.
So, in effect, no one ever needs to register their intellectual property. In practice however, it makes real fiscal sense, along with granting peace of mind.
Again, I’m not a lawyer. If you have any legal questions I would urge you to seek legal counsel.
Hopefully this will help educate designers about the generalities of copyright law. In this day and age there is a very real need for designer to be well informed and prepared against copyright infringement. What experiences have you had as a designer with copyright infringement? Is there anything you would recommend to designers out there concerning copyrights?