How to Legally Protect Your Artistic Creation

Copyright protections in Washington state

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 work being given away for free online? What protections do you have and 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, music, dance, theater, writing, computer code and more once it has been put into tangible form. It protects all intellectual works from being used without the creator or owner’s permission. A copyright is a property right, made simply by creating something.

The Elements of Copyright Notice

To protect your work further, there are a number of things you can do. The first being 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:

  • A representation of the word copyright in one of three forms: ©, Copyright, or Cpyrt
  • The author, artist, creator, or owner’s full name
  • 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 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.

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 help. If you would really like to put some teeth in shielding your masterpiece, you will want to register your copyright with the national 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 product 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.

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