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Copyright Laws 101

Copyright Laws and Your Business

By Demir Barlas

The concept of copyright is vitally important in that it can protect irreplaceable intellectual property from being stolen. Despite the ubiquity of the copyright symbol, though, the legal concept of copyright unfortunately defies easy understanding.

What Is Copyrighted

In the US, the Copyright Act of 1976 granted expanded legal powers to creators of original works in the areas of literature, music, cinema and architecture. Original works gain copyright protection at the moment of their creation, though content creators can still register works with the Copyright Office to gain additional statutory protection.

Copyright law has an impact on all businesses because the US Copyright Office's definition of "original work" extends well beyond music recordings and book manuscripts. Almost everything on your website is protected by copyright laws; original marketing communications, blogs, photographs, articles and even podcasts enjoy protection. In the Internet age, every business produces some sort of content, and that original work cannot be used, copied or sold by other parties. By the same token, your business can't use the original work of others (such as blog entries, logo designs, online photos and movie clips) unless you obtain their express permission.

In addition to your Web content, computer programs are protected by copyright. If you design a program for your own business use, it is copyrighted; employees, partners and the general public aren't allowed to copy it without your permission. Additionally, anything that an employee creates for you on company time is your property. It's a best practice to specify this in the contracts of any employees who will be producing intellectual property for you, otherwise it may be more difficult to litigate against someone who reuses that intellectual property in their own business.

What Isn't Copyrighted

Copyright law excludes just as much as it covers; for example, it doesn't protect the name of your business, your marketing slogans or product names. This kind of intellectual property is protected through the US Patent and Trademark Office. According to the US Copyright Office, copyright also fails to protect "ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something."

Finally, copyright laws does not cover products. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, "a description of a machine could be copyrighted, but this would only prevent others from copying the description; it would not prevent others from writing a description of their own or from making and using the machine." This explains why any company can manufacture, for example, computers.

The Stakes

For a small business, paying attention to intellectual property - including considerations of copyright, patents and trademarks - is of the utmost importance. If you infringe on another's intellectual property rights, you can be sued in civil court or found guilty of a felony. This kind of risk can sink a small business, which typically lacks the legal resources and war chest of a larger company. Meanwhile, if you fail to be vigilant about protecting your own intellectual property, you can give up advantages to your competitors.

Things to Keep in Mind
  • Copyright - There's nothing you need to do now to copyright your original work. Since 1978, the mere act of creating it makes it yours; however, you should occasionally comb the Web and perform other kinds of diligence to ensure that your copyrights are not being violated. If you find what you suspect is a violation, consult an attorney.
  • Trademark- You've probably spent a lot of time thinking about your name, marketing slogans, product titles, and the like. Trademark everything that you don't want to lose to another company.
  • Patent - As far as the courts are concerned, what you don't patent doesn't belong to you; therefore, pay close attention to patent law and file on behalf of any invention unique to your business. This can be an extremely important investment, as it can prevent even the largest of companies from using your intellectual property (without paying you, of course), and it builds credibility for you and your business.
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