This post written by Dirck Stahl and Osman Mufti of the law firm Ziemer, Stayman, Weitzel & Shoulders, LLP.
Copyrights, trademarks and patents are types of property that people own. Because they are the products of a person’s imagination and creativity, they are referred to as “intellectual property”.
People often confuse these three types of intellectual property and use them interchangeably, but it is important to know the differences.
A copyright – often indicated by the mark “©” -- is a form of right that is granted by the Constitution and other laws. Copyrights protect things people write and create, including both published and unpublished works. These may include written works such as novels, scripts for movies or plays, songs . . . even something we think of as ordinary, like letters from one person to another. It also protects creations that take other forms, such as computer software, video recordings, movies, photographs, and audio recordings of songs or other sounds.
Unlike copyrights, patents protect inventions. For example, your computer contains many parts and components, most of which were invented by someone.
Trademarks protect phrases, logos or symbols identifying a product or service. Trademarked logos and slogans often bear a little mark as ® or ™.
A copyright exists immediately when a person creates an original written work. The law does not require that copyrights be “registered” before it exists, but lawyers highly recommend registering original works with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration of a copyright allows an author to sue for copyright infringement.
In general, the law provides the author or owner of a copyright with the exclusive right to reproduce the work, distribute copies of the work, and perform or display the work in public. As with other types of property, a copyright can be sold or transferred in other ways. For example, the author might permit another person or company to use the work, with or without limits on specific periods or uses. Often, selling limited or unlimited rights to a written or recorded work is the main way – if not the only way – that an author, artist, or other copyright owner can make money from the work. Every time someone reproduces a copyright-protected work without permission, then, it deprives the copyright owner of valuable rights: the right to control how, when and for what his or her creation is used, the right to be paid for granting permission to use it, and the right to receive credit for having created it. Sometimes copyright owners give away the right to use their work for free, but that is their choice, and they are still able to control how often, when and in what ways the free use occurs, and they still get credit for their work.
Copyright is an especially important topic when it comes to content you find online. Because of the amount of content and the types of formats in which it appears online, people have invented many ways to steal that content for their own uses without obtaining permission from the copyright owners. If you download a movie or song for free on the internet, for example, you may be “pirating” the movie or song, because you don’t have the permission of the owner to do so, and you have deprived him or her of the right and ability to charge you money to do so. It might not seem like a big problem for just one little movie or song, but imagine the millions – or even billions – of times people obtain the same thing without paying for it, and the amount of money the owner could have collected – but now has lost. This deprives people of the way they make their living through their creativity and the products of that creativity. Even worse, some people not only take those products of creativity from the rightful owner, but then also reproduce and sell the product as if it were their own!
In some instances, the law allows us to use a copyright-protected work for specific things without first obtaining permission from the owner – this is called “fair use.” But those cases are the exception, not the rule, and are often limited to situations where the user has already paid for a copy of the work.
Copyrights serve an important purpose in society by promoting creativity and the production of literature, art, and other content that contains valuable ideas and information. We want others to be able to use the things creative people produce, but we must be sure that the owner’s rights are protected, that credit is given, and that the owner receives compensation for the value of the work.
Understanding the protections copyright law provides will foster a greater appreciation and respect for literary and artistic work you may encounter online and make you a “good digital citizen”.
How do you think you would you feel if someone used your creative work? Would it make a difference whether they did the following:
- Asked your permission to use it?
- Gave you credit as the creator?
- Changed the picture or added a caption without asking you?
What do you think it means to use someone else’s creative work responsibly? Does it matter how and where you use it?