Small Business Questions & Answers


Filed under Start Up

Ask About Copyrights

by Puzzled in Portland | May 25, 2012

Subject :Copyrights

Dear Toolkit,

Thanks for your column on Intellectual Property. I found it very informative. But can you tell me a little more about copyrights? Who has a right to copy my work? What do I have a right to copy?


Puzzled in Portland

Dear Puzzled in Portland,

Copyright law is designed to protect creators—authors of every ilk, including writers, photographers, composers, software designers, musicians, actors, publishers, sculptors, architects and artists, choreographers, cartoonists, and even cartographers. These creators have the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, display, and assign their work from the moment it is set in a fixed form.

Since 1989, it's not even necessary to place the traditional copyright notice on a work to assure its protection, but it's not a bad idea to do so anyway. A little C in a circle followed by the year and your name will make your lawyer's job easier if a violation should occur. © 1995 - 2008, Toolkit Media Group, a Wolters Kluwer business. All Rights Reserved. is our usual tag line, although the "all rights reserved" part of it is more a matter of tradition than law since that phrase is no longer required.

Besides giving you much better legal protection, the best reason to include this notice on your works is that it's FREE. And if you want to take it a step further, you can register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. If you experience an infringement, be sure to register your rights BEFORE you file a lawsuit. Again, this saves wear and tear on your lawyer. It also allows you to collect legal fees in addition to regular damages.

Your work is even protected internationally by virtue of two major treaties, the Berne Convention and the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC). From time to time the nations of the world send delegations to places like Paris and Geneva and Buenos Aires to discuss and update these agreements. (Why is it that these deals are never done in Cleveland or Lower Slobovia, I wonder?)

And rest assured that the rights to your creation will outlive you. The life of the usual copyright is the life of the author plus 70 years. (Works created before 1978, however, have a 28-year copyright, plus an option to renew for another 47 years.) And works made for hire, like this column, as well as anonymous and pseudonymous works have a copyright duration of 120 years.

Anyone who wishes to use your work must ask your permission. If you have not granted permission, you will have a good case for infringement. Unlike trademarks, which revert to public domain if they are not vigorously defended by their owners, copyrighted works don't automatically expire if you fail to squawk when someone pirates your stuff, so if you fail to notice a violation, it won't cost you your rights.

The exception to the permission rule is a concept called FAIR USE. The law takes into account that news reporters, critics, researchers, and academic types should be able to quote your work minimally without your specific permission. And it seems to be okay for myopic musicians to blow up tiny sheet music so they don't fall flat on their clarinets during marching band gigs.

But it's not fair to make copies of Microsoft Word for your closest personal friends, to say the least. Just because you own a book or software or a DVD doesn't give you the right to scan, photocopy, rerecord, or display it without the author's permission.

And a whole new body of law has begun to evolve with the advent of the Internet's potential for abuse of online content, including email, MP3 files, video and blogs. What exceptions will be made for some of these electronic creations remains to be seen.

Other exceptions to copyright include titles, ideas, slogans, and systems or processes. For example, you can use song titles 'til the cows come home and never ask permission, but don't even think about using lyrics. If you're a reader of popular novels, perhaps you've noticed this exception being used.

In answer to your question about what you have a right to copy—apart from actual copyright concerns, you do NOT have a right to copy a whole bunch of stuff known as "restricted material." Color photocopies of $20 bills come to mind.

Any negotiable instrument is a no-no; bonds, currency, postage stamps, travelers checks, and other items that fall into that category may only be duplicated in black and white and should be reduced by 25% or enlarged by 50% of original size. And identification may also only be copied in black and white. This includes birth certificates, auto titles, immigration papers, passports, and driver's licenses, to mention a few.

One final caution: don't fall into the trap of believing that you may copy something so long as you aren't charging anyone for it or are not benefiting from it monetarily. This defense may help keep down the damages you'll have to pay but it won't absolve you from an infringement suit. Even though you don't make money on it, you may be jeopardizing the commercial value of the author's property.

Hope this gives you a better idea of what's involved in copyright law.