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copyright basics

how is a copyright like a car?

why do I have a copyright in my work?

when is a copyright created?

are there exceptions?

what is registration and why should I care?

is registering a copyright as tough as doing my taxes?

do I have to submit original art to the copyright office?

which images should I register?

when should I register?

what if I don't register and someone steals my work?

how is a copyright like a car?

Tommy Taker rented a mid-size car for two days from Don't Take Us for Granted (DTU) car company. He signed a contract and agreed to pay a certain amount of money for the use of that particular car for that specific time. At the end of the two days, Taker fulfilled his contractual obligation, returned the key and the car, and paid DTUFG for the use. Obviously, use of the car has value for which the rental company expects to be compensated.

Why did Tommy rent the car? He only needed it for a couple of days; renting is cheaper than buying. This is the difference in a license and a buyout.

Now, suppose Taker didn't tell the car rental company that he'd made a duplicate car key. A year or so later, Taker returned to the car rental lot and drove the car off the lot without a contract or payment. As soon as DTU found out that he had used their property without permission or payment, they launched a search for Taker. His unauthorized taking/use will cost him a lot more than a two-day rental fee.

Cars and copyrights are both "property". A car is tangible personal property. A copyright is intangible intellectual property. The intangible part is what throws so many people when we talk about our copyrights.

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why do I have a copyright in my work?

The U.S. Constitution gave creators a right in the property they create. Congress enacted laws protecting creators' property rights. Generally speaking, no one has the right to copy your creation in any way in any medium without your permission. It is illegal for any unauthorized person or company to scan, copy, duplicate, manipulate, alter, etc. your work without your permission. The law specifically gives creators the right to copy, reproduce, distribute, display and create derivative uses of their work.

when is a copyright created?

As soon as you create your work, a copyright is created. When a photographer clicks the shutter, s/he has a copyright in the image that appears on the film. When a designer creates a promotional piece, when a painter paints a canvas or an illustrator sketches an image, a copyright exists as soon as the creator's (non-copyrightable) idea is expressed in a medium that can be viewed.

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are there exceptions?

Yes. Only two groups of creators do not have a legal right to control the various means by which their creations might be used: non-employees who agree, in writing, to relinquish their copyrights and employees. The exceptions include "fair use" of a creator's copyright.

 

what is registration and why should I care?

You have a copyright in your work even if you do not register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. However, there are benefits to registering your copyright: (1) you cannot sue for copyright infringement unless you register; (2) if you sue and win, you may recover attorney's fees; and (3) if you sue and win, you may recover a form of punitive damages (called statutory damages) up to $150,000 for each infringement.

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is registering a copyright as tough as doing my taxes?

Not even close. It is EASY to register your copyright. Fill out the two-page registration form, which you may download from the U.S. Copyright Office's site. Or you may write the Copyright Office and request a form. It costs $30 to register. You may register a single image or a group of images. You may register everything you created in a given month. You must name the image, or group of images, that you register.

do I have to submit original art to the copyright office?

Don't even think about it. If the work has not been published, you may register a primitive copy of your work so long as it is readily viewable. A photocopy of a black-and-white print. A laser print from a scanned transparency. Be sure to keep an identical copy of your registration papers and the images registered.

which images should I register?

You must submit an exact copy of any image for which you want protection if it is infringed. Registering outtakes, or a similar work, will not help you if someone infringes a similar unregistered image. In other words, let's say you photograph a person with a dozen expressions. You register 11 of those images and send a 12th image off to the client who publishes it in a national magazine. Then someone scans the 12th image out of the magazine and uses it in their company's annual report. You will not be able to sue for infringement, nor will you be able to recover attorney's fees and punitive damages UNLESS you registered that 12th image with the Copyright office.

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when should I register?

You may register the copyright before the image is published, or within 3 months after it is published. To register a published image, you must submit two copies of the published work. The registration is effective from the date of receipt by the copyright office, so its a good idea to send it registered or certified mail, return receipt requested. When the copyright office has done its job, you will receive a copyright registration card. It took 6 months for the copyright office to send my last registration card.

 

what if I don't register and someone steals my work?

If you want to sue for copyright infringment, you still may and in fact must register your work with the copyright office. You also may have grounds for other causes of action, such as breach of contract, although the cost of litigating could exceed the amount you are owed. Still, it's better to try to recover some payment for your work because the infringer will be less likely to steal your work again.

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