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Copyright Tips

Are you a small business owner or entrepreneur trying to figure out the nuances of copyright law? Well, trust that you are not alone! As a business owner, you will need to know about intellectual property rights. Did you know your business names and business ideas are intellectual property?

Copyright protection is one form of intellectual property that safeguards your business. The U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 governs U.S. copyright law. The Copyright Act is a federal law that governs copyright protection in the United States. It provides legal guidelines for the creation, ownership, registration, and enforcement of copyright in various types of creative works.

There are certain principles that you should know that can help you gain a better understanding of how and when your literary, artistic, or musical material is subject to copyright protection. This article will provide helpful tips for small businesses looking to learn more about copyright law.

For more information, visit FindLaw's Intellectual Property section.

1. Create Original Content

Focus on creating original works. Original works include novels, plays, computer software, music, artwork, or alternate forms of creative expression.

Your products should be original works of authorship. This eliminates the possibility of you using someone else's copyrighted material. Using others' intellectual property without permission is copyright infringement.

2. Obtain Permission to Use With Proper Citations

If you are not creating your own original work or want to incorporate another person's copyrighted work in yours, then get their permission to do so. Seek permission from the copyright owner before using their copyrighted work. If you are using or referencing copyrighted material owned by others, give proper credit.

This extends to reposting copyrighted music, images, and videos on social media for business use. Before sharing on your page, you should ask the content creator's permission to avoid copyright infringement.

There are some works that are in the public domain that are not protected by copyright law. You can use those freely without prior permission. Some examples are the "Happy Birthday" song or works that have passed their copyright protection date.

The U.S. Copyright Act awards statutory damages to a copyright owner in copyright infringement cases. This means whoever uses the works without permission must pay the owner monetary damages.

3. Register Your Copyright

Register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office before you seek a court order to stop someone from infringing it. Your copyright registration takes effect as soon as the Copyright Office receives the required items and an application. The required items must be in an acceptable form. The application process can take a while.

Send in a completed application form, a filing fee, and a copy of the work to register to the Copyright Office, located at the Library of Congress. The copy of your work (which the government calls a "deposit") is not returnable. It will remain at the Library of Congress.

4. Display Copyright Notices

Always put a copyright notice on your creation, especially before you send it to somebody. Include your business name and the date. For example:

© 2023 FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters business

Copyright 2023 FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters business

Remember, notice isn't required for works created after March 1989. It's still a good idea to give notice like the examples above to warn people that the work belongs to you. Although publications written by employees of the U.S. government are not copyrighted, you can't claim a copyright on them. Instead, you should state in your copyright claim that you aren't claiming copyright on them. For example:

Copyright 2023 FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters business. Copyright claimed as to all material exclusive of U.S. Government topographical maps.

Again, this isn't required for publications after March 1, 1989. Yet current publications include it according to the Copyright Office.

When you are claiming protection for something you have recorded, the copyright symbol (©) isn't used. Instead, use the letter "P" in a circle (℗). The P in the circle symbol represents the copyright-law term "phonorecord," which includes LPs, 45s, eight-tracks, cassette tapes, CDs, and the like.

5. Consider Fair Use

Determine if your use of copyrighted materials falls within the scope of fair use. A work is eligible for copyright if it is original, shows minimal creativity, and is in some tangible form of expression. Factors for fair use include the amount used, purpose, and effect on the market. Fair use may apply to non-profit organizations, educational institutions, individuals, or other entities. The U.S. Copyright Office has a Fair Use Index for you to review before making a decision.

6. Rights Acquired

With a copyright, you control the use and copying of your creative work, and the right to distribute it, display it, or perform it. A copyright owner also holds rights to derivative works, such as adapting a novel for a movie or reinterpreting a song like the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" as a country song.

Copyright owners have the right to control public performance and displays, including activities. This includes staging the musical "Rent" at the local theater or broadcasting any part of a football game without the prior express written consent of the National Football League.

7. Transferring Rights

You have the right to transfer your exclusive rights or any portion of those rights to another person or business. That transfer must be in writing with your signature. You can also put a transfer into a trust or in a valid will.

If you want to "rent" your work, you can do that by giving another person a license. A copyright license is a contract granting permission to do something. For example, J.K. Rowling licenses her “Harry Potter" characters to clothing companies and Universal Studios. This adds value to your copyrighted material. Others must pay you a fee for a license. You determine the price of that fee and the terms of the license.

8. International Protection

Whether your copyright is good in another country will depend on that country's copyright laws. Some countries enter into treaties with one another to protect foreign copyrights.

9. Special Deposit Requirements

Some kinds of work have special requirements for the deposit. For example, if you are trying to register a computer program, whether published or not, you need to deposit one copy in source code that is visually perceptible. That means a hard copy or "printout". If your program is fewer than fifty pages, you must deposit a printout of the entire program. If your program is longer than that, you must send the first and last twenty-five pages of the program and the page with your copyright notice on it. Additional rules exist for deposits in CD-ROM format.

Works that exist only online, like an eBook not available in a hard copy for purchase, do not need to provide physical copies. eBooks and eSerials are also exempt unless the Library of Congress asks the applicant for a hard copy.

10. Stay Informed and Seek Legal Help

You can always search the Copyright Office's records of copyright and registration online at However, a good first step is contacting a copyright lawyer to protect your artistic works. An experienced business and commercial law attorney will be able to guide you through this often difficult process.

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