Time for a copyright? Here's what you should know

You love painting, and you were happy when so many people liked your latest print. You have been selling a few each month online to your friends. Then, you saw someone wearing a T-shirt with that print on it. You don't sell shirts. Now, you know someone has taken your image for their own uses.

The good news is that you do likely have a copyright. A copyright is a protection granted by law. It protects tangible published and unpublished work. Copyrights protect original works such as:

  • Novels
  • Movies
  • Computer software
  • Dramatic musicals
  • Poetry
  • Songs
  • Architecture
  • Musical works
  • Artistic works

Contrary to what some believe, copyrights do not protect ideas, methods of operation, systems or facts.

Knowing what a copyright can do is important, because there are times when other protective measures are better. For example, depending on what you're trying to protect, you may want to have a patent or trademark instead.

What do you have to do to protect your work through a copyright?

Interestingly, you don't need to do anything for a basic copyright. The moment you create a work in a fixed, tangible form, then it is protected by a copyright. You don't have to register, because registration is voluntary. However, if you want to file a lawsuit against someone for infringing against your work, you will need to register your copyright.

Since you need a copyright if your work is infringed upon, it may be a good choice to register your work when it's first created. It makes it easier for you to show that the work was created on a certain day and to have the copyright on public record. You'll also obtain a certificate of registration that would help in the case of litigation.

If you can't cover the cost of registering your copyright, can you mail a copy of your work to yourself as a "poor man's" copyright?

This is a myth that has persisted for many years. Unfortunately, there is no legal basis for it. You cannot get the same copyright protections by mailing yourself any information about your work, though having the time and date stamp could be helpful if you later need evidence in court.

If someone takes property that is yours, your copyright may help you fight to get them to pay you what they've made in profits, to stop selling your work or to take other steps to make things right.

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