How to Protect Your Copyright from Copycats

A common scenario keeps occurring in the online business world: people are stealing other people’s intangible assets and online content. In some cases, entire blog posts are being appropriated word-for-word (seriously). In other instances, the exact same topic is written, albeit just a bit differently — like taking out a thesaurus to change a few verbs and adjectives in an effort to “make it their own.” It’s plagiarism in school, which translates to outright copyright infringement in the business world. 

Do content creators have any recourse? And, what crosses the line from fair use to copyright infringement? Here’s what you need to know about what copyrights cover — and don’t.

What exactly is a copyright?

Literary works, musicals, paintings, sculptures and other artistic works are typically subject to copyright protection. A copyright protects the form of expression, as opposed to the subject matter of the expression. There must be some element of creativity and originality in the work.

What can I do with my copyright?

The owner of a copyright has exclusive rights to reproduce copyrighted works, prepare derivative works, distribute copies, perform publicly and/or display such works.

How can I protect myself?

Federal law allow protection of “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression…” Now you may ask, what makes something an “original design”?  “Original” means that the creator did not copy someone else and that there is at least some minimal degree of creativity.

There actually does not have to be any formal registration in order to “protect” your work. So, why do people actually register for a copyright?

Formal registration is required to enforce your copyright. This means that you must have a registration with the copyright office (i.e., the Library of Congress) in order to go to court to enforce your copyrights should someone infringe on your work. Furthermore, a formal copyright registration permits you to register the copyrighted material with customs, which may be able stop infringing works at the U.S. border.

Copyright registration also serves as a public notice of your rights and may also act as a deterrent to others who are tempted to copy. Additionally, proof of registration helps when you send a cease and desist letter and a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notice; in fact, some platforms require that you have registration or they will not take a potentially infringing work off of a website. And surprisingly, it’s only $35 to register (plus attorney fees)!

How long does a copyright last?

The current law is the life of the author plus 70 years. However, families of copyright owners who have passed on are constantly lobbying to extend this length of time because of the potential payouts.

Someone’s copying my stuff. What do I do?

You can have an attorney draft a cease and desist letter that goes directly to the infringer as well as a DMCA takedown notice, which goes directly to the web host/platform.

I want to copy somebody else’s stuff to make a point. Can I?

It’s best to be original. However, there are a few limited instances where you can use someone else’s work, and this is where the fair use doctrine comes into play.

Very generally, if you are criticizing a piece of work, commenting, news reporting, teaching, or creating a parody (i.e., SNL), then you may be able to use parts of a copyrighted work. Safest bet: get permission from the copyright owner to use a piece of their work. And remember, simply giving attribution to the original creator is not enough to avoid claims of copyright infringement.

Genavieve Shingle is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.

This article was co-authored with Suzi Hixon, Counsel at Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, LLP.  Genavive and Suzi work together helping businesses in all areas of business and intellectual property law.

*This document is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Genavieve Shingle is an attorney only licensed in the State of New York and the distribution of this guide does not constitute an attorney-client relationship.

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