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Copyright Protection for Beginners

At least every month or so, I get a call from a friend in one of the creative arts asking how to protect their work from theft. The best answer is to hire an intellectual property lawyer for advice, but this can be quite expensive for the average content creator in the early stages of a project.

There are other more basic methods for protection and everyone creating content should be using them. The biggest mistake is to ignore the issue altogether. That is a recipe for a lot of hurt down the road, especially when a project is an unexpected hit.

There are a few simple solutions one can do without professional help. One is to protect finished creative projects by registering the work with the Library of Congress. This can be found online at the United States Copyright and Trademark website.

This copyright registration service, which ranges in cost from $45 to $65, covers all kinds of creative projects, including video, sound, visual art, music, photography, computer programs, performing arts, websites and written materials — including books and articles.

Copyright protection, however, does not protect names, titles, slogans or short phrases. For that, look into trademarking. When a project gets copyright protection, it lasts for 70 years after the death of the author.

A work does not have to be published to receive copyright protection. The applicant doesn’t have to wait for the certificate to continue with publication either.

For works distributed globally, it becomes more difficult because protection depends on each country. The United States does not have copyright relations with all countries. The U.S. protects the copyrights of its own citizens, but beyond that it gets more complicated. For questions, speak to the copyright office at 888-668-1363, or better yet, hire an attorney.

Copyright protection grants creators the exclusive rights regarding the use and reproduction of their original work. This legal right started in reaction to unjust controls by owners of early printing presses. With the Licensing of the Press Act 1662, the English Parliament addressed the unauthorized printing of books and pamphlets. This legal concept was then adapted by various countries.

Copyright is under the umbrella of intellectual property laws designed to make the selling of works easier. However, when an employee gets paid for creating certain material, the employer often gets the copyright. An infringement of copyright occurs when an owner’s product is reproduced without permission.

What if the work is incomplete or unfinished — say still in the idea stage? If the work is written, it can get documented protection from the Writer’s Guild West Registry. This can serve as a preliminary step before filing for copyright protection with the Library of Congress. Writer’s Guild registration is useful for proof of an idea before submitting projects to contests, agents, managers or producers. The cost is $20 and it’s simple to do online.

In the age of the global internet, many people freely use copyrighted material with impunity, especially on social media services. Creative Commons (CC) is a nonprofit organization that was set up to overcome the legal obstacles to the sharing of content throughout the world.

Creative Commons offers a free, simple and standardized way to grant copyright permissions for creative and academic works; ensure proper attribution; and allow others to copy, distribute and make use of those works.

Creative commons and copyright both refer to legal explanations and sanctions regarding authorship. Both authorizations refer to creators’ conditions regarding their original outputs such as video, sound, software, songs, books and websites.

It is complicated, but Creative Commons was designed to increase the number of legally available creative works. It has benefitted the masses by releasing materials that can be used free of charge.

CC licenses give creators the freedom to decide which rights are being reserved and waived. It is currently being incorporated in popular online platforms such as YouTube and Flickr. These licenses are based upon copyright specifics and have only a single, simplified description of rights.

Creative Commons was founded by Lawrence Lessig, Hal Abelson and Eric Eldred in 2001. Lessig is an activist, attorney and Harvard law professor; Abelson is an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science professor at MIT as well as a co-founder of Free Software Foundation; and Eldred is a literacy advocate and the owner of Eldritch Press.

With intellectual property and copyright issues, it is easy to see the complexity and “gotchas” of this process. This is why issues with high-value intellectual property demands the services of a lawyer experienced in this type of work.

All creators should at least register or copyright their intellectual property online as a basic starting point. It is good business.

Frank Beacham
Broadcast Beat