What in the heck is a copyright?!
Copyright is the legal protection provided to an original expression of an idea that has been set to a medium. Meaning, if it is something from your mind that is originally yours, and you transfer that expression to some sort of canvas, then you have created something that can be protected by copyright.
For example, a poem written onto a piece of paper. A rap song performed and put onto YouTube. A posed couple captured in a photograph. A periscope broadcast. A blog post on a website. These are expressions of an idea that can sit forever on a medium. These are the subjects of copyright protection. Not all ideas can be protected by copyright. For example, people’s names, everyday phrases, and common information that appear on calendars and clocks.
A copyright allows you to use your work in a whole bunch of ways. You get to reproduce it, make derivative works, display it publicly, hang it up on the refrigerator at your mom’s, all kinds of things.
How do you acquire the legal protections associated with copyright?
This is pretty easy. The moment, and I mean the very nano-second that that expression hits the medium, it is copyrighted. That is to say, if it’s on the page, if it’s on the website, if it’s on the CD, it’s protected by copyright.
However, the legal protections that you are provided by this level of copyright is poop. That is to say it is very minimal. If you want the legal protections that most people think of when you think copyright, you will need to REGISTER your copyright with the United States Copyright Office. Registering your copyright is very simple, and can basically be done without a lawyer on the copyright website. There is a filing fee, which is under $100, and a short application process.
What can you do with a registered copyright?
That’s also simple. You can do lots. Most importantly, you acquire lots of powers of ENFORCEMENT when you register your copyright. Like a trademark, if someone has stolen your work, you can file a lawsuit in federal court; and if successful, you can be awarded attorney fees and different types of damages.
Also, registration gives the presumption that your copyright is valid and acts as notice to the world that the work is yours. This can be very important because copyright infringement is essentially what you call a strict liability tort. This means that someone can be liable for copyright infringement whether or not they intended to infringe.
Where there is intentional infringement, the damages can be much greater. So, because the registered copyright basically tells the world that the work is yours, it makes it less likely that there will be innocent infringement. This means an infringer will probably have to pay more in damages to you.
When should you register your copyright with the copyright office?
Again, you will want to do a cost-benefit analysis.
The ease and lack of expense makes registering a copyright a no-brainer. But, in my opinion, there will be some times when it will be more beneficial than others.
The first consideration will be, what is your profession? Does your livelihood derive from the expression of that idea? If you are an event photographer, the answer is probably ‘yes.’ If someone bogarts your photographs of that spectacular event, it devalues your brand, and could potentially take money out of your wallet. I’m trying to eat, you know? Same with musicians who perform their own songs.
On the other hand, a planner who happens to own some photos that someone steals- maybe not that big a deal because it’s not directly interfering with that event planner’s principal mode of profit.
I’m not saying that in one situation there would not be infringement, I’m just saying, is keeping the material EXCLUSIVE to you CRITICAL to the revenue of your business? If the answer is YES, then look into registration.
Second is, how likely is there to be theft of the material? I feel like, in the event industry, it really is photography and site content that get stolen the most. So, naturally, these are going to be items that are on the top of the list for registration.