Fundamentally, copyright is a law that gives you ownership over the things you create. Be it a painting, a photograph, a poem or a novel, if you created it, you own it and it’s the copyright law itself that assures that ownership. The ownership that copyright law grants comes with several rights that you, as the owner, have exclusively.
Virtually every business either creates or uses works that are protected by copyright laws. The manner in which your company creates or hires others to create original works of authorship will significantly affect your company’s legal rights to reproduce and use those works. Misusing another’s copyrighted works can lead to claims of copyright infringement, which can lead to lawsuits and significant defense costs. On the other hand, proper acquisition and use of copyrighted works can reduce certain business expenses and potentially lead to new sources of revenue.
In the United States copyrights are granted to protect an author’s original writings. Today, “writings” are not merely books but any form of original expression. This means advertising can be protected by copyrights, including the text and any art work and photographs contained in an advertisement. In the United States, copyright laws protect original architectural designs, software, graphic arts, motion pictures, music, sound recordings, and even web sites.
In the United States, copyrightable works have been categorized as follows:
- literary works
- musical works, including any accompanying words
- dramatic works, including any accompanying music
- pantomimes and choreographic works
- pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
- motion pictures and other audiovisual works
- sound recordings
- architectural works
In the United States, a copyright owner generally has what is often referred to as a bundle of rights that include the exclusive rights to:
- Reproduce the original work
- Create derivative works base on the original work
- Distribute copies of the original work by gift, sale, rental, lease, or lending
- Perform certain original works publicly
- Display the original work publicly, including pictures or other images of or from the original work
- Perform his/her original sound recordings publicly via digital audio transmission
Subject to certain limitation, authors of works of visual art also have the rights of attribution and integrity which include the right to:
- Claim authorship of that work
- Prevent the use of his or her name as the author of any work of visual art which he or she did not create
- Prevent the use of his or her name as the author of the work of visual art in the event of a distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation
- Prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation (any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right)
- Prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature (any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right)
In the United States, the general rule is that the person or persons who author an original work own the copyright in that work. There are exceptions to this rule, and it can be altered by written agreement. Your company owns the original works of authorship that are created by your company’s employees while the employees are working within the scope of their employment. For example, if your company employs a person to take photographs of babies who are brought to your company’s studio, then your company will be the copyright owner of each baby picture taken by your employee while on the job. If you employ someone to write advertising or software code or music or movie scripts, and the employee is performing the specified task while on the job, then your company will be the copyright owner of the resulting work product. If your company hires a contractor to do these things, and uses a proper form of written agreement, your company can acquire copyright ownership of the contractor’s resulting work product. However, absent a written agreement transferring the copyright to your company, the contractor will generally be considered the owner of the copyright in the contractor’s resulting work product.
Registering your copyrights in the United States Copyright Office gives you these benefits:
- It is a public record of your claim of copyright ownership in the work
- You may use the United States federal courts to protect your copyrights
- It will aid in your efforts to prevent importation of infringing copies of your work
- Your registration will serve as evidence in court of the validity of your copyright claim, provided you register your claim either before you publish your work, or within 5 years after you publish your work
Provided you register you claim of copyright no later than 3 months after you first publish your work and prior to any infringement, you will have the right to claim statutory damages and attorney’s fees if you are forced to sue someone for infringing your copyrights
You can do a number of things to help protect your company’s copyrights. Some easy steps to take are to include proper copyright notices on each copy of your works. You can also register your copyrighted works in the United States Copyright Office. And, you can use a proper form of written agreement when hiring others to create original works of authorship.
Depending on the nature and demand for copies of your copyrighted work, you may be able to publish and sell copies of your work to others. You may also be able to license certain rights in your work to allow others to reproduce, print, publish and sell or otherwise distribute or display your copyrighted works. The copyright owner may grant all or limited rights, either worldwide or within specified territories permitting another to exploit the copyrighted work in specified ways and under other specified conditions. Typically these license agreements call for the copyright owner to receive a payment, often times in the form of a royalty. Royalty rates are usually expressed in the form of a percentage of the income the other party derives from the exploitation of the copyrighted work. These license agreements should contain provisions to protect the copyright owner’s rights, and should not be entered into without consulting a competent attorney.
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