Protecting your ideas – Copyright

Tony Husch

When people think of protection, they usually want to know how to safeguard their own rights. But others have patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, and other rights that you must be careful not to infringe in asserting your own interests.

As you explore the question of legal protections, you will find that they not only help you, they may also restrain you.

Let’s say, for example, that you have come up with a great marketing idea–using the song “The Great Pretender” to promote an investion that you call “The Great Pet Tender.” Do you need permission from The Platters or whoever currently owns the copyright to the song? Can you use a modified version without getting permission? Can you be sued? What are the chances of winning? How much might you have to pay?

It is best to get answers to those questions early [from the copyright holder, a copyright lawyer, or the U.S. Copyright Office], and avoid risking time, money, or adverse publicity.

On the other hand, say you developed a product whose success depends on the novelty of the instructions. Should you try to copyright the directions? How effective is the protection?

As with patents, a lawsuit is necessary to enforce your rights against an infringer. Unlike patents, copyrights are quick and inexpensive to obtain.

Coprighting something will discourage copying, so it is worth the minimal effort it takes. It can be done easily without an attorney. No search is necessary to determine whether the work is similar to existing copyrighted material.

Not everything can be copyrighted. The law protects “original works of authorship” fixed in tangible form. Those especially relevant for new-product development include:

* Labels

* Instruction manuals

* Photographs

* Computer software

* Books

* Graphic designs

* Written promotional material

* Sound recordings

* Product summaries

* Presentations

* Market analyses

Names, familiar symbols, slogans, short phrases, methods, systems, and some other types of subject matter cannot be copyrighted. Standard items such as calendars and rulers with no original authorship are not copyrightable.

A copyright grants the exclusive right to reproduce, revise, distribute, display, or sell the material.

Ideas are not protected. Only the precise way in which an idea is expressed can be copyrighted. Mere ownership of, say, an original painting does not give one the right to copy it to make greeting cards. The owner of the painting can sell it but cannot reproduce the images in it without the copyright owner’s permission.

Likewise, a written description of a machine can be copyrighted. This would prevent others from copying the description, but nothing can keep them from describing the same idea in their own words. Nor would it prevent them from making, using, or selling the machine itself. Only a patent would accomplish that.

Every work is automatically copyrighted when it is created, or put into fixed form. However, to preserve the right, all published copies must carry in an obvious place all of the following elements of copyright notice:

* A copyright symbol “[C],” the word “Copyright,” or the abbreviation “Copr.”

* The year of first publication.

* The author’s name or a recognizable abbreviation.

If a work is “published” without any of these elements, the copyright protection is usually lost forever. The concept of publication does not require formal typesetting and printing. Rather, it has to do with dissemination of the work to other people.

It is best to use the copyright notice from the outset so there will never be a question of whether a work was published without it.

For a nominal fee, you can register the copyright with the Register of Copyrights. Different types of “writing” are treated somewhat differently and require the use of different application forms. Although registration is normally not required for valid protection, it does give notice of the claim and confer certain advantages in infringement suits.

In general, for works created after Jan. 1, 1978, when a new law went into effect, the copyright lasts for the life of the author, plus 50 years. The duration of protection for other works depends on the date of their original copyright.

These matters are explained in Circular 1, called Copyright Basics, and Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, available from the Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20559; (202) 707-9100.

There is no international copyright protection, but the United STates is a member of the Universal Copyright Convention, which provides protection to nationals of member countries if certain formalities are met.

For details about foreign protection, write the Copyright Office for Circular 38a.

Obtaining a copyright is quick and easy. Since it costs so little in time and money, it is foolish not to preserve a copyright whenever applicable.

COPYRIGHT 1991 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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