Uniquely Yours: Defending Original Work via Copyright

Artistic expression manifests in our personal and professional lives more than we may realize. When an artist finishes a painting, a fishing guide writes a description of her services for a brochure, or a beekeeper posts information about types of local honey on his blog, they all create original works—in other words, intellectual property. Federal copyright laws, along with trademarks and patents, give people legal protection for their original works.

Copyrights are different from patents, which safeguard particular products and processes, and trademarks, which shield shorter names and catchphrases. Copyrights protect the original expression of an idea in any static form. A recording of a play would be protected under copyright law, but not the performance itself, for example. Copyrighting ensures that only the author is able to sell, distribute, or perform the copyrighted work. In other words, copyrighting prevents competitors from profiting from the author’s original ideas, and it gives authors the right to prevent copyright infringement and seek damages if it does take place.

Generally, a copyright protects intellectual property until seventy years after the author’s death. However, there are limits to what a copyright can do. A person or company who purchases a copyrighted product outright can then sell or rent that product as they desire. Such outright purchases often take place in the music industry, for example. Also, people may use copyrighted items in the context of teaching, critiquing, or reporting without infringing the associated copyright. Perhaps most importantly, copyrights protect the author’s particular execution of a concept, but not the concept itself. The beekeeper’s specific description of his honey varieties is protected under copyright law; the idea to write articles about local products is not.

Individuals and small businesses should take care to enforce their full rights to all intellectual property. Technically speaking, it isn’t required to register a copyright—all an author needs to do is to add a copyright to the work: © Laura J. Hansen 2019, for example. However, registering a copyright makes it much easier to take legal action against someone who commits copyright infringement, and increases the validity of the author’s claim. It helps prevent competitors from making money from the author’s original work without permission.

Registering a copyright is fairly simple. Authors should have an attorney help determine if their work is truly “original,” and search for other copyrights with similar content. Original, copyrighted works may be registered at the United States Copyright Office.

Small business owners, artists, and artisans all work hard to create something uniquely “theirs.” An attorney can help creators of all kinds utilize copyrights to keep artists’ intellectual property theirs and theirs alone.

Any requests for topic suggestions may be sent to rene@breenandperson.com. Although we cannot give you legal advice through the column, we can provide some general information that may be helpful for you to know. Our purpose is to educate and we hope that you can take something new away from this column each time you read it.