Legal / Startup Life

Copyright Protection For Your Products

Today we are talking about the importance of copyright protection—particularly for those of you who have digital products or products that can be “knocked off.” Copyright is a type of intellectual property protection. That phrasing is especially important for those of you with digital products, i.e. prints, illustrations, or e-books, which are particularly easy to steal. No one likes to work and create a product only to see it stolen and others benefitting from it. Copyright is neither complicated nor costly, especially if you have an attorney helping you do it. The cost can be as little as $35 for the registration fee, if you add an hour of time for a reasonably priced attorney you can register your copyright for under $300. The only time copyright issues become costly is when there is a delay or you do not register your copyright. While it is true that you could still sue someone who copies you, if you have not registered your copyright you may not be able to get attorney fees (which will cost you if the suit is litigated); you are limited to state courts, state judges, and state remedies under state law; and worst of all you have to prove multiple facts, that could change with your state, such as bonafide use of the copyright, use of it publicly first, that the person you are suing should have reasonably known about it, and so on.

However, if you spend a little bit of time and money you get multiple benefits. A registered copyright guarantees that you don’t have to prove you own the copyright in court—it is yours. You also know have the ability to bring your suit in federal court with a federal judge under well-developed federal law that you can tack state claims onto as well. You also are entitled to attorney fees if you win and statutory damages (without you having to prove how you were damaged) of up to $30,000 per violation for normal violations and $150,000 per violation for willful violations. With a federally registered copyright you can also pay a small fee (less than $200 at the time of writing) to register your copyright with US Customs who will then enforce your copyright against knock-offs and copies that come in from overseas as they inspect cargo coming in—that’s very cheap to have the government doing part of the work for you.

Finally, there are other practical benefits that are not court or law enforcement related. A copyright gives you sole control over what you have copyrighted for your lifetime plus 70 years. That means you have the right to update, revise, change, create sequels, etc. You control when, where, and how it appears. You are the only one licensed to distribute or sell your product. Those that want to license, sell, or do anything with your product have to reach out to you and you can charge for it. Copyrights are also freely transferrable—you can sell your copyright. For example, if you drafted a story you could sell the movie rights. If a larger company loves a design you use you could sell it. There are entire companies built on developing copyrighted material and licensing and selling it such as Sanrio, the Japanese company that includes among its staple designs “Hello Kitty” which as of 2010 was worth over $5 billion a year in revenue and is believed to be worth close to $7 billion annually as of this year.

So I conclude saying, please copyright your products. It’s cheap and it’s not complicated compared to other legal issues you may deal with. Most of all it guarantees your rights to your work which you should be benefitting from instead of freeloaders who steal those benefits from you.

Image by Josh Duffy; creative commons

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