The business of copyrights

Whether you realize it or not, copyright law affects many aspects of your life and business. It greatly benefits business owners to have an understanding of copyright law and how they can use it to protect their business and, more importantly, their livelihood.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution created the idea of copyright law when it provided Congress with the power “to promote science and the useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors . . . the exclusive right to their . . . writings.”

In short, copyright is a right of intellectual property, whereby authors obtain, for a limited time, certain exclusive rights to their works. A copyright only protects an author’s original expression. It does not protect ideas. Further, the work has to be “original,” which is actually a very low standard, meaning that the work must have its origin in the author.

Copyright is not just for the “creative artist types.” Although copyright does protect literary works, musical works, dramatic works, pantomimes, choreographic works, “pictorial, graphic and sculptural works,” sound recordings, motion pictures and all other audiovisual works, copyright law protects all work that communicates a message in any tangible medium. That could be architectural works, employer/employee handbooks, computer software and e-mail letters.

In other words, copyright protects the “meat” of a business. Since one of the important keys to business is communication, copyright law can protect a business from the theft of communication material by an employee, competitor, or even a deadbeat client.

Copyright has also been extended to protect architectural designs and buildings from unauthorized construction. Copyright law gives an architect a weapon (other than a pencil) to wield against non-paying or unctuous clients.

It used to be that if a builder failed to pay the architect for its services, the sole remedy was to sue for a breach of contract. Since 1991, an architect can sue for copyright infringement, which authorizes the recovery of attorney fees (a client’s dream come true!) Copyright also protects against a builder reusing blueprints without paying the architect a license fee.

In addition, copyright law now protects hull designs of yachts and ships. This is actually the first industrial design protection allowed in the United States, which is more common in Europe.

The new law protects vessel hull designs that are original and different from public domain designs in some significant way, and are not dictated by utilitarian function.

It is important to note that a work is copyrighted as soon as it is created and fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Generally, a copyright lasts for 50 years beyond the life of the work’s author, after which it lapses into the public domain.

However, in order to sue for infringement of your copyright, the work must be registered with the copyright office located in Washington D.C. Registering your work prior to the act of infringement (someone copies your copyright) allows the recovery of statutory damages and attorney fees. Registration currently costs $30.

Copyright law, if used wisely, can be a secret weapon in protecting a business or an author’s assets. If you think you have created the next Beanie Baby, you might want to register it with the Copyright Office to protect the idea. If you have created a design on a T-shirt that you wish to market, protect the idea by filing for a copyright. If there is a photograph, story, or any other miscellaneous object you have come up with, copyright law is there to protect your potential investment.

Copyright law can be a vast and confusing field of law. However, it can also be exciting, useful and, hopefully, lucrative.

Ken Artz is an attorney with the Traverse City law offices of Menmuir, Zimmerman, Kuhn, Taylor and Quandt, PLC. His practice focuses on intellectual property matters, specifically trademark and copyright issues, business law, real estate law, and commercial and civil litigation. BN