It’s important for those who deal in intellectual property to understand their rights — and as a designer, intellectual property forms the crux of every product and service you deliver.
This article won’t explain those rights to you, but it will smash some of the misconceptions and myths that are held by a surprisingly vast number of people. This is not legal advice — please consult your lawyer before taking any action regarding your intellectual property.
You Can’t Copyright an Idea
You can’t copyright an idea you’ve had or a concept. Copyright law in all Western countries applies to fixed tangible expressions.
A fixed tangible expression means you’ve taken an idea and created something that can be identified and recorded out of it: an article written down or typed, a song you’ve recorded or notated, a painting on a canvas.
You can write about your idea and that description of the idea, as a fixed tangible expression, will be yours, but the idea it describes is still not protectable.
Copyright Doesn’t Need to be Registered
The moment you create something, it is yours. You own the rights to that work. Your work does not need to be registered with the copyright office in order for you to own the rights — registration is just a means of proving your side of the story should you end up in court.
Obviously, even if the law automatically assigns copyright on creation, you will need ways to back up your story and timeline in court should someone challenge you. The free Myows is a great way to verify the timeline of your work through a third-party.
Poor Man’s Copyright? More Like Poor Man’s Myth.
For decades, people have thought that as an alternative to registering with the copyright office, one could simply mail your work to yourself by registered mail and leave the package unopened to prove the date on which the work was created should you wish to bring legal action to bear against someone who has infringed upon your work.
The truth is that you need to register your work with the copyright office in order to sue someone else for copyright infringement. A variety of evidence can be taken into account when you’re the one being sued and having to defend your work, but the same does not apply should you wish to bring the action against others.
Freelance Work Doesn’t Remain Your Property
Many people assume that, outside of an employment agreement, working for someone in a freelance capacity doesn’t automatically transfer the intellectual property rights to the person or entity that has commissioned the work.
A work that is created as a ‘work-for-hire’ for a client is completely in the ownership of said client as soon as they pay you for the work. Should you wish to retain the rights and license them to the client instead, your contract will need to clearly specify this.
Work-for-hire doesn’t transfer your moral rights, though. You still have the right to be attributed for the work by the client, and the right to point out that it is something you created in a portfolio. Specific clauses are required in contracts for ghostwriting services or other confidentially authored works to give away moral rights.