Monday, 17 November 2014

5 Things Every Media Professional Should Know About Copyright Law

This article is part of a SWAGGER Media blog post series that will expand on certain aspects of U.S. copyright law, aspects which we believe are important for media professionals to know and understand.

Wait! Don’t close this tab just yet! I promise to make these articles short and to the point. I promise that I will give you reliable information in the most condensed way possible. And I also promise that I will include a great deal of illustrative gifs to help the medicine go down a little easier.


If you’ve decided to stick with me: welcome to the wonderful world of U.S. copyright law!



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Let me begin by stating that copyright law is essentially federal law and is governed by federal statute. Meaning that you have to comply with it, no matter where you live in the U.S.


Now, allow me to take up the next ten minutes of your life to explain five basic facts about copyright law that every communication professional should know and understand:

1. Copyright Law Protects Intangible Property But Only If It Is Fixed In Tangible Means

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Let me explain: when you buy the movie Legally Blonde on DVD, that DVD is yours. You can watch it as many times as you want, loan it to a friend, donate it to Goodwill, or do whatever your heart desires with it. However, you do not own the actual Legally Blonde movie. This is why it would be illegal for you to make copies of your Legally Blonde DVD and sell them for profit. In this example, copyright law protects the movie itself, along with its story, characters, audio, video, soundtrack, etc. but not the physical DVD sitting in your bookshelf.

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However, for intangible property to be protected by copyright law it must meet two conditions:
  • The author must have created the work through their own skills and labor, and
  • The work must be fixed in tangible means of expression.

The federal copyright statute does not protect things that are not fixed in materials we can see and/or touch, like extemporaneous speeches or performances. However, these types of performances can be covered under common-law copyright.

2. You Can’t Copyright Law...and a Bunch of Other Things

Let's go about it another way. Let's talk about things that are not protected under copyright law. It's a smaller list:

  • Mathematical principles, formulas, and equations.
  • History or historical theories.
  • Law.
  • Trivial Materials: like common sayings, slogans, or minor variations on works that are in the public domain.
  • Ideas: If it is not fixed in tangible means of expression, that great idea for a science fiction novel you have bouncing around in your head cannot be protected.
  • Facts: "The Earth circles around the Sun" cannot be copyrighted.
  • Utilitarian goods: things that exist to produce something else.
  • News Events: while news events can't be copyrighted, the written or broadcasted stories used to explain these events can be protected by copyright.
  • Databases: Only those databases where the factual items are organized in a novel or artful manner can be protected.
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Sorry Locke, but there's gotta be SOME limitations.

3. If You Created It, You Own It...Most of the Time


Ownership of the copyrighted material usually belongs to the person who created the material with their own skill and labor. However, if the material was made by a contracted employee as part of their job then it belongs to that person’s employer. For example: If you are a visual designer and you create a beautiful logo for your company as part of your job duties as an employee, that design belongs to your employer, not to you. If you ever leave that company, you can’t claim copyright infringement if the company continues to use that logo.


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The rules are a little different if you are a freelancer, and we will talk more about that in a subsequent blog post.

4. Copyright Lasts Almost a Lifetime

For materials that are owned by the person who created them, the duration of the copyright is the entire life of the creator plus 70 years after their death. For example: A lot of Mark Twain's writings are now part of the public domain because their copyright expired. For materials created under work for hire conditions, the copyright lasts 75 years after their creation.

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5. If You Can't Sue for Copyright Infringement, You Might Be Able to Sue for Misappropriation

I don’t want to delve too much into the subject of misappropriation because then I would be breaking my promise to keep this blog post short and sweet. But here it is in a nutshell: the law of misappropriation is intended to stop a person from trying to pass someone else’s work as their own, as well as someone trying to pass their work as somebody else’s.

So what does this have to do with copyright? Well, while your donut shop slogan: "Eat It or Beat It" might not be protected by copyright, if the donut shop two blocks down uses that same slogan and tries to pass it as their own creation, you might be able to sue for misappropriation, because their business is in direct competition with yours and their action interferes with you profit potential.

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Nope! Can't do it!

Was any of this info surprising to you? Let us know by commenting below or tweeting @swagger_media. And look out for my next blog post where I will be discussing how you can secure a copyright to protect your work.














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