Important information about copyright laws and the definition of intellectual property.
A Brief Primer on Intellectual Property and Copyright Laws
To some extent, so called “intellectual properties” including copyright and trademark laws, are my specialty. Not because I'm a lawyer or even an expert, but because I've got thirty years in the business and just finished having one of my artworks registered as a federal trademark. So it's more a case of "been there" and "done that".
While I don’t suggest that anyone simply take my word as to the veracity of this particular essay, it does represent a good place to start for those who are bewildered by the seeming complexity involved with issues of ownership and theft – otherwise known as “infringement”. In cases to do with non-fiction, such concerns usually relate more to questions of plagiarism.
Artists, authors, and musicians tend to be confused when it comes to their rights or possible infringements pertaining to their original works (and that of others). All such products are cumulatively referred to as intellectual properties.
Unless you are purposely copying or tracing an artwork, for example, which obviously belongs to someone else, be it an individual or a company, you are free to create whatever your heart desires. If you feel, on the other hand, that your work is derivative--meaning it’s from something you've seen or remember seeing--it's probably a good idea to do a Google image search for items closely related to what you have in mind.
Suppose you wanted to use a character similar to Homer Simpson. Even without looking at the actual image, you can pretty much create something which comes very close to the original art--creative work that is, of course, the property of someone else. Provided your version is not an exact duplicate, however, which reflects the unique characteristics of the original Homer, don't worry about it. Just don't do a direct tracing or an exact copy of the other artwork. Even when your adaptation of a cartoon character looks similar to another, but it's not an intentional copy, feel free to create your brains out.
Keep something else in mind, which never makes us feel good, but is nonetheless the facts, Jack. No potential thieves care about our stuff, which is all a bunch of worthless crap, figuratively speaking, until proven otherwise. Unless you make a gazillion dollars, no one gives a damn, even if you do make an exact copy of Homer. And many people do exactly that, or the equivalent. All of which constitutes an unambiguous infringement. And few (if any) are ever prosecuted or hassled. The reason being again that nobody, and I do mean nobody--who is unscrupulous--gives a rat's behind what you're writing, singing, drawing, or otherwise doing, unless you're making so much money at it, that the rightful owners think you're depriving them of their own customers' dollars.
This is especially true in the music industry, where we've seen lawsuits based on copyright infringement solely because an artist or company thinks they're losing money to someone who's using their stuff without permission. Prosecutorial litigation is so expensive nowadays that such lawsuits are increasingly rare, and we hardly ever see them. Unless you're stealing from Sony or Steven Spielberg, you pretty much have nothing to worry about--and that's if you are stealing.
So you can imagine that if you're not purposely infringing, where nobody cares about pilfering your stuff in any event, how you're flattering yourself if you worry about such things. As a general rule, do whatever you want and stop thinking anybody cares to copy or steal what you're doing. They just don't.
In this context, copyright infringement is largely a bluff affair. It's so difficult to prove, so time consuming and so expensive, that people who are informed and aware, no longer bother anymore to include the traditional circle with the letter "c" inside. A lot of us smile politely when we see a new author or artist put copyright symbols on their work, or worry about such things at all. As if they had just invented the cure to baldness.
In the U.S., your work is automatically copyrighted the moment you create it. With or without any legalistic symbols. Your legal name is the same as the symbol. But who cares? The going rate for prosecuting an infringement case is $25,000. Have you got that kind of money to go after somebody? With absolutely no guarantee of winning? Of course you don't. And neither does anybody else. Unless you're Sony or Steven Spielberg. If you're not stealing their stuff, stop worrying about it. Marketing and selling your work is a thousand times more important than spending ten-seconds on copyright law. And factors such as date-of-creation and so forth.
By the way, not only should you not worry about incidentally "borrowing" from someone else, it matters even less that anyone will borrow from you. Which they won't. Ever. Unless you make the aforementioned gazillion bucks. So why, again, are you concerned about a silly copyright symbol that means nothing and carries no weight? Maybe by now you're starting to get the picture, no pun intended.
Incidentally, California is the only state that recognizes copyright nationally. This means if you're a resident of California, you can go after somebody in any other state who steals your stuff. Yeah, right. Like that's gonna happen. If you're a resident of any other state, your alleged protection is only good inside that state. This means the extent of proof required is significantly greater outside your state. But all of this, once more, is essentially of no concern to you, regardless. Unless you plan on stealing stuff. Which you don't. So get back to creating your new best seller and stop wasting time with these other trivialities.
In case you're interested, trademarks are interesting. They're for people who have businesses or other concerns, and utilize a company logo. Trademarks are like "patent pending" info is to inventions. Whereas a "registered" trademark is the actual patent, except only as it pertains to artwork. Got an invention? Get a patent. Have a design or insignia that represents your intellectual property? Get it registered. My design took over five years and $5000 in legal and filing fees to finally get registered.
If you'd like to see my newly registered design, here's the link:
This will take you to one of the departments located on my personal website and is self-explanatory. Thanks for dropping by, if you do.
Let me close with a stern warning to you and my other friends and colleagues who are busy creating their own writing or artwork or other materials. All of which are considered intellectual properties.
There are sharks and predators out there who are every bit as dangerous to your pocketbook as the real animals are to your physical body. They love people like you and I, who wonder how much it might cost to copyright their work. Uh, let's see, Bob. For you, we give the special writers' discount which will only cost you $500.00.
As stated earlier in this article, copyrights are free and you don't need anybody to do anything. But many businesses won't tell you that. Plus they'll lie to you, just flat out, about a lot of things. Nice, right? Welcome to the wonderful world of intellectual properties.
So-called "professional" editing of your manuscript is often another scam that takes new writers for thousands of dollars. But that's another loaded topic that I'll answer upon request. I normally charge much more, but for members of WdC, your cost is only $500.00 (just kidding).
Trademark registration is the only protection that costs real time and money. Your butt is hanging out, both literally and literarily with anything else. In the unlikely event that someone stole your stuff (excuse me while I chuckle--with you and not at you) people will sometimes hire a lawyer to send a threatening letter, which is all you can do short of spending the $25,000 mentioned earlier. And that's probably even more nowadays. Ooh, a warning letter from an unknown attorney. We're all shaking in our boots. Not.
By the way, if you see a copyright symbol on my website anywhere, it's a mistake on my part. Leftover from when I didn't know better. Well, that's not 100% accurate, I guess. Some people like using the symbol, including written notifications and declarations, because they think it keeps honest people honest. Like a padlock on a gate. Remember that serious crooks, however, always have bolt cutters.
To sum up, it's mainly important that we understand what the rules and limitations are, and that we don't inflate either our own importance, or that of what constitutes ownership rights and privileges. Compared to the proper and polished editing of our manuscripts--let alone marketing them--copyright infringement and protection ought to be among an honest writer's least concerns.