A common worry in the virtual entrepreneurial world is people stealing other people’s online content. I’ve witnessed entire blog posts copied word-for-word and, in other cases, the exact same topic is written albeit just a tiny bit differently to “make it their own.” Those forms of plagiarism are copyright infringement in the business world.
What exactly is a copyright? Literary works, musicals, paintings, sculptures and other artistic works are typically subject to copyright protection. A copyright protects the form of expression, as opposed to the subject matter of the expression. There must be some element of creativity and originality in the work.
What can I do with my copyright? The owner of a copyright has exclusive rights to reproduce copyrighted works, prepare derivative works, distribute copies, perform publicly and/or display such works.
How can I protect myself? Federal law allow protection of “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression…”. Now you may ask, what makes something an “original design”? “Original” means that the creator did not copy someone else and that there is at least some minimal degree of creativity.
There actually does not have to be any formal registration in order to “protect” your work. So, why do people actually register for a copyright? Formal registration is required to enforce your copyright. This means that you must have a registration with the copyright office (i.e., the Library of Congress) in order to go to court to enforce your copyrights should someone infringe on your work.
Furthermore, a formal copyright registration permits you to register the copyrighted with customs, which may be able stop infringing works at the US border.
Also, copyright registration serves as a public notice of your rights, and may also act as a deterrent to others who are tempted to copy. Additionally, proof of registration helps when you send a cease-and-desist letter and a DMCA (Digital Millennial Copyright Act) Take Down Notice; in fact, some platforms require that you have registration or they will not take a potentially infringing work off of a website.
Surprisingly, it’s only $35 to register (plus attorney fees)!
How long does a copyright last? The current law is the life of the author plus 70 years. However, the families of copyright owners who have died are constantly lobbying to extend this length of time because of the big time payouts.
Someone is copying my stuff. What do I do? You can have an attorney draft a cease-and-desist letter that goes directly to the infringer, as well as a DMCA Takedown Notice, which goes directly to the web host/platform.
I want to copy somebody else’s stuff. Can I? It’s best to be original. However, there are a few limited instances where you can use someone else’s work, and this is where the Fair Use Doctrine comes into play. This is a complex and fact-based analysis. Generally speaking, if you are criticizing a piece of work, commenting, news reporting, teaching, or creating a parody (i.e., SNL), then you may be able to use parts of a copyrighted work. Safest bet: get permission from the copyright owner to use a piece of their work. And remember, simply giving attribution to the original creator is not enough to avoid claims of copyright infringement.
This article was co-authored with Suzi Hixon, Counsel at Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, LLP.