With entrepreneurship at an all-time high, people are buzzing about with ideas. Inventors, idea-makers, programmers, and artists all have different means of expressing their concepts for a new company, new product, new clothing design, and even new software. But which of these concepts are actually protected under copyright law?
So much of the time, it can feel like you need a decoder book just to figure out what copyright law is saying. And, when you are bursting at the seams with an idea you really want to protect, the last thing you want to do is wait. Everyone has heard about those terrible lawsuits between giant companies that spend tons of money trying to establish who was first to copyright an idea.
Do you want to look back on the early days and lament that you waited too long because you didn't know if your idea or work was something you should have protected? Of course not.
So, let's take a moment and figure this out.
A copyright protects an idea that is fixed or tangible. If you have ever gone onto the uspto.gov website, you have certainly read that portion of the law that reads: Copyright law protects an "original work of authorship that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression." OK, wait, before you start wondering if that applies to your idea, let's translate it.
You don't actually need to be a literal book author to qualify - although books do qualify. An original work of authorship is a work that a person creates that is not verbatim copied from something else and it can include books, but it can also include a dramatic or comedic play, a musical work, a sculpture, a painting, a photograph, or even a choreographed dance piece. These, however, are just some of the more traditional categories of copyright.
The part of the law that seems to confuse and bewilder so many of us is the portion that reads "fixed in a tangible medium of expression." All this portion means is that you have to put your idea down in a tangible way, which includes writing it down on paper, filming a scene you wrote or a dance you choreographed, or even creating language for your software.
Copyrights do not protect ideas
Unfortunately, copyright protection does not extend to a basic idea. In other words, if you are looking to write a love song about lost love, you cannot prevent another person from writing a love song about lost love. What you protect when you write the song is the particular words, phrases, and musical notes you use to convey your ideas in your music.
Or what about that film idea you had about the tragic death of your favorite singer? Well, copyright does not protect the underlying facts of your favorite singer's death. It is the unique way you express the narrative, either in a screenplay or on film, that is protected.
Some things you may not know about protecting your copyright from infringement
Authors, and yes, even if you are a painter or songwriter, this includes you, don't realize that a work is protected the minute you put it into a fixed medium of tangible expression. You own the rights to that piece. In fact, you own the right to copy it, distribute it to friends or anyone else, change it or create a derivate form of that work, and even display it or broadcast it.
Filing the copyright with the federal government, however, lets you actually sue if someone uses your work without your permission. Yes, that means that you cannot file a lawsuit to stop the copying or infringement in federal court without that basic copyright registration.
Protected works you might not have considered
What many people don't understand is that nowadays, copyright extends beyond just traditional forms of authorship to new forms of expression like video games, CD-ROMs, and even software.
More and more young entrepreneurs are embarking on cool new projects in the field of computer software coding and design, yet so many do not know that copyright might be available to them. Yes, that means your computer's RAM is just like the novel your neighbor has been slaving over for the last five years. Or what about that video game you just programmed for cell phone use—have you made sure it is protected under copyright? Before you take that meeting with one of the big names in that field, you will want to make certain your cool new concept is written down and registered with the USPTO.
Another area of copyright protection that you may not have considered is textile design. You may have heard about designers starting to sue copycat clothing companies to prevent them from using replicas of textile designs or artwork screened on clothing. Again, you cannot prevent another company from making a T-shirt out of soft cotton as you have been doing for years, but you may prevent them from taking that fabric pattern you just designed for throw pillows and producing an exact replica to use on dresses, furniture, or other accessories without your permission.
What can you do if copyright doesn't apply to your idea?
Even if a copyright doesn't apply to your exact idea, you may want to take a look at other forms of protection like trademarks or design patents. A trademark can protect everything from that cool company logo or company name you just whipped up for your new eBay store to the catchy tagline you began using to brand your new products on your hang tags. On the other hand, a design patent may be helpful in protecting a particular process in software that you just thought up and started programming or even an improvement you originated that may not qualify under copyright.
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