This copyright 101 article was originally a guest post I’d written for my friends at wixel a couple of years ago. They’ve since redesigned their website and I didn’t want it to get completely forgotten as I believe it provides an easy way for designers and photographers to understand Copyright.

As a digital creative, your days are too short to be slowed down by legal fluff and the fine-print. Yet Copyright is probably your main source of income and therefore you should know how it works, make sure yours is safe and understand why should care.

I’m no lawyer, so please take what I say with a pinch of salt, but my interest in copyright and how to protect it spiked in 2008 when I got thinking about selling digital goods online. The threat of unauthorized redistribution was real and I decided to focus my efforts on creating a solution I would be willing to use.

Today I work as a web designer and run Myows, a free online copyright management app that assists in managing Intellectual Property and fighting copyright infringement.This I believe puts me in a good place to share some basics about Copyright I learned along the way.

Why does copyright exist?

Simply put, so creators can claim ownership of their work, attach their name to it, control how others may reuse it, and make money to either pay their parents back or drive to Starbucks for coffee.

What does copyright cover?

A lot! For example let’s take Myows, whilst our users are essentially photographers, musicians, designers and writers, we also have an old lady protecting her crochet designs so that Walmart doesn’t use them in their next winter collection, amateur chefs protecting their recipes and a few adult movie-makers. Everything vaguely original you create on this planet carries copyright and you can decide, through infinite licensing options, how others may use your work.

What are licenses?

A license is a contract detailing how you allow others to use your work, if at all. You could restrict usage to whoever you want, and in whatever way you want. With that said, it’s advisable to use a license that is easily understood, applicable and enforceable.

Popular licenses include:

  • All Rights reserved (like a bro’s girlfriend, don’t even think about it)
  • Free for personal use
  • Free for personal and commercial use
  • Free to use, as long as you credit the creator
  • Free for commercial use, as long as the work is not altered
  • A variety of Creative Commons licenses that more or less cover all of the above. CC licenses were specifically drafted to allow creators on the web to share their works with ease and escalating degrees of restrictions.
  • GPL (you may create derivatives and are free to distribute or resell these as long as you keep credits in the source codes and release your derivatives as GPL)
  • Exclusive use (for instance when you design a logo for a client, you keep the copyright to the work and grant the right to use it only to your client)

Who owns copyright on a remix (or derivative work)?

Lets say you create an illustration from a picture you found on Google. Or build something on top of code you don’t have a right to use. Since you created something original, you could think that all’s OK and that you own copyright to the derivative work. Well not so fast cowboy. Since the copyright holder of the original picture never allowed you to use it in the first place, you could be sued heavily for copyright infringement. The most famous example to illustrate this is the case around the OBAMA HOPE poster by Shepard Fairey.

Do I need to register copyright?

As soon as you create something original, you own copyright on it. Sounds easy right? Well that’s only the theory but the fun part comes later… when a dispute arises.
You will need to prove that you first created the disputed work through your own creativity. That can often be tricky and is the exact reason why keeping a trail of evidence, if applicable your source files or sketches, and sending proof to a secure third-party witness becomes important. Disputes often boil down to who created the work first, or who can bring the most evidence to the table. Therefore, having your ducks in a row and a solid timestamp on your work can save you mountains in legal fees.

Piracy amongst creatives is rampant

If you work in the digital space and think none of your works’ have ever been stolen, then you either are a fool or you seriously lack talent. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a blogger, a musician, a designer, a photographer or a coder, the internet has made it so easy to copy text, images or files that we are all at risk.

Obviously, the severity of the damage and reactions to it vary

You might be flattered

Since someone somewhere likes your work, it means someone besides your Ma’ thinks you have talent and it might not matter to you if the infringer asked for a permission or a license. By stealing something that belongs to you, the perpetrator made your day. Blissful are the simple minds.

Sometimes it won’t bother you

Ok well, you know it’s part of being a digital creative. You have more work than you can handle, Clifton 4th is calling, and you are not prepared to spend any time dealing with this as long as your business isn’t affected.

It could probably piss you off

Just ask Von Glitschka how he feels when his art is found for sale on various marketplaces without his consent or knowledge. Or David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of Ruby on Rails, when he found out that curebit, a startup with over 1M$ in funding, was stealing 37signals’ design and front-end code. Things can get ugly.

Often it will mean a loss of income

If you’re selling digital goods, through Themeforest for instance, and another website is redistributing your files, you could be losing on sales.
If you blog, and your articles are republished without consent, you could be losing on visitors, and less visitors mean less advertising revenue.

It could turn into identity theft

This happened to Jacob Cass recently. Clients might then hire a perpetrator thinking they are hiring the real creative.

It could ruin you in legal fees

Copyright battles that go to court are expensive, my friend and associate Chris runs a branding agency that was accused of stealing a larger company’s logo when in fact they copied his agency’s. Thankfully this didn’t go to court, but it easily could have. Chris’s debacle had the side benefit of him joining me in creating a solution to the copyright infringement problems we were encountering.

What should you do when you find copies of your work online

– The first step is to immediately find the infringers’ emails then contact them stating you are the copyright owner and ask them to stop using your work.

– If that doesn’t work, you need to send them a more stern and official Cease and Desist Letter (do this in case you end up in court, Myows can prepare one for you)

– At this stage, you can also go public, although you’d sometimes run the risk of shooting yourself in the foot if, for instance, the pirate website is giving away for free something you’re selling.

– If the dispute is still not resolved after a few days, then find out who their hosting provider is and send the host a DMCA take-down notice (Myows can also help you write one). In every case I’ve seen involving digital creatives, this is fortunately the furthest it goes, as most hosts will not take the risk of being sued and will oblige in shutting down a website containing infringing material, else the host would lose its safe-harbor status.

– In the rare scenarios where the host is a renegade, you can contact google and get the site de-indexed. No webmaster wants to be dropped by Google, so usually the mere threat of doing so will suffice in having the infringing site remove your content.

– If all else fails, just contact the FBI. This is what happened to PirateBay and MegaUploads who are getting fines in the millions of dollars and time behind bars for disrespecting copyright laws.

Why should you care about copyright?

I’m aware that Copyright is a heated issue and only a hypocrite would claim never to have infringed on someone else’s IP. Yet as online professionals we live in an ecosystem and lawlessness is no way to interact with other members of the community. May it be in the real world or the information highway, rules are in place to ensure everyone’s right to own property, pursue happiness and the mighty dollar bill. Those individuals who blatantly ignore these rules cause damage to the whole, and if you are passive about Copyright, by the time it affects your business it’s already too late.

Being pro-active about knowing your rights, properly managing your Intellectual Property and fighting for others to respect your licensing terms can positively influence your money, your time, your reputation and the world in which we live and work.

Find out more about Copyright

Intellectual Property Lawyer and Myows co-founder Steve Ferguson wrote an excellent Copyright Basics for Graphic Designers – this article should answer most questions you have about Copyright.