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Copyright Basics: How to Create Your Work and Keep It, Too

Is another business taking credit for your work? Our Legal Expert shows you how to prevent this from happening to you again.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Q: I've started a small homebased business making customized T-shirts, menus, mouse pads and other products. I take a picture and add designs or text to it. Recently, I did some menus for a business that just wanted a few. They asked me to put my business name and telephone number on them. I delivered the menus with everything they asked for. Then they took the menus to someone else and had copies made. The person who made the copies took my name off and put their own name on them, so it looks like they made the menus. Is there anything I can do to stop this? How can I keep this from happening again?

A: No one is allowed to steal your work and put his or her name on it. These things are protected under copyright laws. To get protection for your work, you have to meet three requirements:

1. The work has to be original, although it doesn't have to be the only one of its kind.

2. There must be something tangible to the work-it can't just be an idea. A mouse pad, T-shirt or menu is tangible.

3. The work must be in a protected category-art, sculpture, books, music, movies, videotapes, photos, software programs or other creative materials. Your graphic designs, photos and text would definitely qualify.

What protection do you get? First, you alone have the right to reproduce the work-no one else can make copies. Second, you keep the right to make similar works based on your own original. Third, you keep the right to distribute copies of the work to the public. Last, only you can display your work publicly. You can transfer any of these rights to someone else by licensing them-allowing someone else to use the work for a specific period of time in exchange for a fee.

So how do you protect your menus and other work? One way is to register a copyright form with the Register of Copyrights in the Library of Congress. This protects your work for 50 years beyond your own death and costs just $30. There are a few different forms, but you only need to know about two: Form VA is for visual arts (graphics, photos, charts) and Form TX is for books, instructions and so on. The Office asks that you file two copies of your work along with the form.

Filing a registration form with the Copyright Office is optional. You can also give public notice that you're reserving all rights to the work by putting the copyright symbol on the work along with your name or the name of your business and the year the work was completed.

For instance, a menu would say: ©2000, Dory C. Artist. All Rights Reserved.

Write the "menu thieves" a "cease and desist" letter saying you know they're using your work and demand they stop. This frequently does the trick, especially if a lawyer signs it. If your copyright is registered, you can also sue the infringer, but that's more costly and time consuming.

Learn from this experience and in the future, put your name in a prominent place on all your work, with the copyright symbol, date, and "all rights reserved" statement. That puts everyone on notice that your creation can't be borrowed unless they pay for the privilege.

Joan E. Lisante is an attorney and freelance writer who lives in the Washington, DC, area. She writes consumer-related legal features for The Washington Post, the Plain Dealer, the Spokane Spokesman-Review and the Toledo Blade (Ohio). She is also a contributing editor to LawStreet.comand

In her practice, Lisante is counsel to and was counsel for Zapnews, a fax-based customized news service for radio stations. Previously, she served as Assistant District Attorney in Queens County, New York, and Deputy District Attorney in Nassau County, New York.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

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