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It is unfortunate that people don’t know as much as they should about intellectual property rights. One day recently I briefly checked in to Twitter to see a discussion on the matter — a discussion that was propagating misinformed ideas. You might see copyright as a topic that’s only relevant to artists and engineers, but the truth is that this isn’t called the information age for nothing and intellectual property laws affect everybody.

Here’s a quick and dirty primer to your copyrights. It is by no means extensive or legal advice and is merely the result of some rigorous study I applied myself to a few years ago as an individual who trades in intellectual property. As with anything, the right thing to do is check the facts by reading the acts so that you’re certain of your rights.

Fixed Tangible Expressions

How do you know when something you’ve created has become copyrighted? The prevailing answer that most people will provide is, upon creation. That’s right and wrong depending on how you define creation. Does creation include conception? That’s the popular view and that’s not correct.

Something is copyrighted when it is a fixed tangible expression. That means it is out of your head and written on paper, painted on canvas, recorded in your home studio or otherwise made tangible.

So when are your conceptions and creations not copyrighted? That brings me to…

You Can’t Copyright Ideas and Names

You cannot copyright ideas. While you can copyright a fixed tangible expression of an idea, you can’t copyright the idea itself even once it has been expressed. Others are able to take that idea and express it themselves, and as long as that expression isn’t too similar to yours, it can’t be contested. Obviously we’re talking about copyright here — trade secrets and patents are different things entirely.

You also can’t copyright a name. Copyright law covers works, trademarks cover names. Trademarks are expensive and there are pretty stringent requirements on registering them. In other words, the names of the characters in your story are not yours, unless you take the unlikely step of trademarking them.

A story, a picture, and a letter to a friend are all fixed tangible expressions. Even a list and the order of the items on the list (but not the names themselves) can be copyrighted. But if you send an idea for an episode to the producer of your favorite show, it is theirs to create a script (which is, you guessed it, a fixed tangible expression of the general idea, though the description of the idea itself as you worded it would remain yours).

Poor Man’s Copyright is a Poor Man’s Myth

There is an idea floating around that mailing something you created to yourself is an alternative to registering copyright for the item. The truth is that you have the copyrights to your work once you’ve created the work, but if there’s ever legal trouble having the work registered will be helpful. This poor man’s copyright trick is a myth and does not provide the legal backup that registration does; you may as well save the money you would spend on envelopes and postage stamps.

Work-for-Hire

f you intend to do business as someone who creates intellectual property, you should be careful. Some people are more than happy to sell the copyright to works they create and some will expect it from you. In some industries, this is the norm, such as with web design. In other industries — for example, if a song is commissioned from a band — a license is typically sold, whether it’s an exclusive commercial license or some form of limited license that gives the buyer certain rights to the intellectual property.

Clever sellers of intellectual property will retain the rights. Clever purchasers of intellectual property will only buy the rights. It gets a little tense when a clever seller meets a clever purchaser!

Here’s the important thing to remember:

In many jurisdictions, unless you specifically stipulate in a contract between yourself and the client or employer, all intellectual property you create for a client or for your employer is their intellectual property. In most places this is called work-for-hire.

The Six Exclusive Copyrights

My mentor in intellectual property forced me to memorize the six copyrights that are granted exclusively to the creator (or creators) of a work. It is wise to do so if you deal in IP yourself. You have the right to:

  • Produce copies and reproductions of the work and sell them,
  • Import or export the work,
  • Create derivative works,
  • Perform or display the work publicly,
  • Sell or assign these rights to others,
  • Transmit or display by radio or video

Nobody else can do these things with your work. Memorize them so that you can easily tell if someone is an admirer or an offender disenfranchising you of your legal rights.

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