How to Legally Protect Your Artistic Creation

Understanding how you get and enforce copyright protections

By Benjy Schirm, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on November 13, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Robert C. Cumbow

Use these links to jump to different sections:

The end is sometimes just the beginning. For an author, the last page of a novel opens a whole new chapter in the publishing process and business of distributing the work. In today’s digital world, the instant gratification model has become the norm for consumers, and as such many will happily download a book for free. But what if you haven’t authorized your original work to be given away for free online? What protections do you have, or can you get?

“When a client walks into my office and says, ‘I wrote a novel and I’d like it copyrighted,’ I say, ‘Congratulations, you already have one,’” attorney Robert Cumbow says with a laugh.

The protections offered by copyright law attach to a piece of art, computer code, and more once it has been put into tangible form. Copyright registration protects all intellectual or creative works from being used without the creator or owner’s permission. A copyright is a property right made simply by creating something.

To protect your copyrighted work further, there are a number of things you can do. The first is a notice of the copyright. “There are three elements to a proper copyright notice, and without all three, it’s invalid,” says Cumbow.

The three elements are:

  1. A representation of the word copyright in one of three forms: ©, Copyright, or Cpyrt
  2. The author, artist, creator, or owner’s full name
  3. The year that the piece was created

This notice must be placed on the work in some way. “For a book, it’s rather simple,” Cumbow says. “It’s often found just after the title page, and they call it the notice page for the very reason that you are giving notice of your copyright and a number of other things to the world. For other works—a photograph, a sculpture, a painting—it can be tougher to affix the c in a circle to the work without changing it in some way, but doing so offers a creator more protections.”

Each of these layers of copyright protection can help establish that you created this thing first, and if you’re able to prove that you did so at a certain time and someone used it as their own without your permission after that, you have a legal basis to stop them.

The important thing to note is that, in order to file a lawsuit on a copyright, the piece must be registered with the National Copyright Office. On top of that, the damages that a creator can obtain are far greater if a copyright is registered.

Robert C. Cumbow

How to Stop Others from Using Your Work Without Permission

If you find someone using your work, Cumbow recommends contacting them and asking that they stop doing so. If that means taking it off a website or retracting a publication, sometimes people will do so willingly. If that doesn’t work, an intellectual property attorney can offer legal advice. If you would really like to put some teeth into shielding your masterpiece, you will want to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. The process is fairly simple and relatively inexpensive.

“The important thing to note is that, in order to file a lawsuit on a copyright, the piece must be registered with the National Copyright Office,” Cumbow says. “On top of that, the damages that a creator can obtain are far greater if a copyright is registered.”

A creator may receive the damages caused by the misuse of their artistic work, or they can collect statutory damages, which are often much larger, and attorney’s fees associated with the litigation. But one can only do this if the copyright is registered. “It’s better to file sooner rather than later because you may not be able to claim all of the statutory protections if you wait until someone steals your work,” Cumbow adds.

Find an Experienced Intellectual Property Lawyer

For help and legal advice protecting your intellectual property rights, visit the Super Lawyers directory to locate an experienced intellectual property lawyer in your area. For more information on this area of intellectual property law, see our intellectual property overview.

What do I do next?

Enter your location below to get connected with a qualified attorney today.
Popular attorney searches: Intellectual Property Litigation Patents

Related topics

Find top lawyers with confidence

The Super Lawyers patented selection process is peer influenced and research driven, selecting the top 5% of attorneys to the Super Lawyers lists each year. We know lawyers and make it easy to connect with them.

Find a lawyer near you