There once was a content manager who happened upon an immense struggle. He lay awake at night on his extra-firm mattress with plush pillows and duvet pondering, “Should I apply for a copyright on my new digital short and accompanying media campaign? Do I actually need one? What will it do for me? Oh, the agonizing burdens that I must carry.” “Have no fear,” said the Copyright. “I am the answer to all of your questions and will provide peace of mind so you can get much needed beauty sleep (ahem).”

If you’ve ever pondered the same questions as our hero, the following discussion of copyright functions and how they apply to online content creation may provide some guidance. The story of copyrights and content managers isn’t especially alluring, but with proper implementation, it can still lead to a happy ending.

What is a Copyright?

Formal copyright protection applies to original works of authorship, including literary, musical, and pictorial works, as well as others listed in Title 17 of the United States Code. Common items that online content creators may need to have copyrighted are websites, blogs, images, and other publications.

Keep in mind that a copyright is different from a trademark, which applies to names, titles, and logos; and a patent, which applies to invented processes, machines or designs. A good way to differentiate the 3 ideas is to think about the context of a song. The song lyrics themselves can be copyrighted, while the song title would require a trademark application. The apparatus used to play the song (smartphone, CD player, cassette player, or record player, depending on your level of hipness) would be patentable.

One point of frequent confusion around copyrights regards the extent of protection that federal copyright registration provides. Barring contractual agreements to the contrary, you, as the content creator, own all right to the content as soon as you create it. You do not need to apply for a copyright to obtain the rights to use the created work as you see fit. However, there are several benefits to registering the copyright that we will discuss next.

Why Should I Apply for a Copyright?

There are two main reasons to consider applying for a copyright – protecting your work and the ability to expand your reach through licensing.

  • To protect your original content.

Has anyone ever tried to pass off your work as their own? Maybe a photo or a speech at a political convention? Registering your work product with the US Copyright Office can serve as evidence in your favor in case of a copyright infringement dispute and can dissuade potential plagiarists who find your work(s) in the federal registration database. It can also protect your clients in case the content you created for them becomes the source of an infringement claim.

Taking the relatively simple steps to apply for a registered copyright can provide peace of mind and extra protection for the work that you have diligently invested time, and possibly money, to create. While copyright ownership of the original work arises when the work is initially created, copyright registration serves as an official record of the date the work was created and gives notice of the owner’s claim to the copyright. If you ever intend to enforce your copyright ownership against infringement, it should be registered.

Take note that employees and independent contractors may not have copyright ownership over “works for hire,” which include original content created for an employer or principal. In that case, the employer/principal likely owns the copyright. Employer contracts and independent contractor agreements frequently address these issues, so be sure to review them carefully when entering a new employment relationship.

  • To expand your reach through licensing.

In addition to protecting your work product, copyrights allow the owner to issue paid licenses to approved users as a source of extra income while retaining control. For instance, that insightful article you drafted about craft libations in East Austin can be licensed to a nationwide magazine to publish for an agreed price and time frame. The license can be as limited or broad as the licensor (copyright owner) determines.

How Do I Register a Copyright?

It’s easy and (relatively) cheap! Once you decide to apply for copyright registration, the process is relatively simple. You can apply electronically through the United States Copyright Office by registering with the website, uploading the applicable documents for copyright, and submitting the appropriate fee. And if that’s too much headache for you, a handy dandy IP attorney would probably be pleased to submit the application in your stead.

Single document copyright registrations (ie, a one-time article) currently require a $35 filing fee, though group registrations for periodical publications and other types of registrations (ie, photos) may have higher fees. After the application and fees are submitted, an attorney for the Copyright Office will review the application and register the copyright if approved. The review process can take several months, but the registration will be listed from the time of initial submission.

Doesn’t Using the © Symbol Get the Job Done?

Yes and no. A copyright is not federally registered unless you apply and receive approval through the US Copyright Office. However, using the © symbol does tell the world that you are claiming ownership of the work that the symbol references and can deter potential infringers from doing so. Again, you should register the copyright in order to preserve evidence of your ownership to make a claim of infringement.

How Can I Legally Borrow Someone Else’s Copyrighted Content?

This is a loaded question with potential for another blog entry in response, but the short answer is to get permission. For images that you publish, either take your own photos or purchase a license from the image owner that allows re-publication. If you are citing information that you obtained from another source, give credit where it’s due and cite back to the original source. Hyperlinks are great for driving traffic back to the original publisher, who will probably appreciate the vote of good faith.

Republication of content from social media sites and other websites will most likely be subject to the particular site’s terms of use and not necessarily up to the person who posted the content. If a client says something positive about your firm on Facebook, use the compliment as a reason to reach out to them and ask permission to share their words on your website. Even if you don’t absolutely have to do so legally, the client will most likely be flattered that you value their opinion and avoid any question of unpleasantness later.

So there you have it. Copyrights inherently belong to you, the brilliant content creator, but registration is relatively simple and can be a very helpful tool to protect your creations. For additional questions, please contact Emily Morris, JD. And for more unromantic stories like the above, I recommend visiting your local law library.

About Emily Morris: Emily Morris, Principal at The Morris Law Firm, is a Texas business and real estate attorney with a marketing background.  She enjoys working with creatives and other business owners on the necessary evils of legal issues so they can focus on the work they do best.  When she isn’t drafting contracts and submitting trademark applications, Emily enjoys singing with Chorus Austin, exploring as many new locales as possible, and two-stepping with her husband Andy.

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