A copyright confers on its owner a bundle of rights and interests.
But before that copyright interest or right can be validly transferred or assigned to another person or entity, the copyright owner must be sure that they presently own in part or in full the copyright interest that is to be transferred.
Determining copyright ownership means going back to the very origins of the creation or work and tracing all the facts concerning copyright ownership going forward to the present in a “chain of title” search that is similar a real estate title search used to validate land ownership.
If the copyright has never been assigned or licensed or if a previous licensing agreement has expired then the copyright owner is free to assign or license his rights in his work.
Imagine for a moment you have been working hard on your writing all morning.
You stomach is empty and your eyes are aching.
You step out for a break at the local coffee shop.
You have thirty five dollars in your wallet. You can almost taste the confections displayed in the glass case and you can smell the fresh coffee brewing on the bar.
Suddenly a threatening stranger demands that you turn the contents of your wallet over to him.
Would you quietly do as you are told only to go hungry and watch as he spends your money on a stack of tasty snacks?
Web content mills demand that freelance writers hand over their Intellectual Property, their copyrights, for free.
When a writer signs either electronically or on paper a “Writer’s Agreement” or similar so-called “contract” agreeing to submit work acting as an independent contractor or freelancer and that agreement includes a clause that requires that the writer upon submission release all copyright interests he has in his work regardless of subsequent approval and payment he falls prey to the content mill’s copyright high-jacking scam.
With the increased ability to share creative ideas and art, graphic designers everywhere are finding more lucrative opportunities to profit from their work.
T-shirt designing is a fashionable possibility but very little has been published to give guidance to the budding artists who are providing the designs that make today’s t-shirts so popular.
As the industry flourishes, copyright challenges and questions seem to grow almost as quickly.
Copyright ownership lines are often blurred and it’s a challenge to keep up with the laws and understand who owns what and who can do what to whom! The maze of legal issues can be overwhelming and distract you from what’s really important – selling your work for profit.
Therefore, if you really want to monetize your graphic design work in the t-shirt world, you’ve got to know your legal rights and understand the copyright laws surrounding this industry. That way you can move forward knowing that your work is being distributed in a way that you’re comfortable with, without the stress of wondering if you’re losing money or control over your designs.
What is Copyright?
Before I go any further, let’s start with a basic definition of ‘copyright’ and what it means to t-shirt designers.
Copyright is the ownership over a piece of work or art and the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, commercially exploit, and otherwise profit from it.
So, for those of you designing art for t-shirts and other products, copyright generally refers to ownership and control over the art and designs you’re creating for third parties and their products.
The #1 Question T-Shirt Designers Ask Is . . .
Over and over we hear, ‘When my work is printed on a t-shirt, who owns the copyrights?’
Creative agencies are increasingly shrinking the number of in-house or staff creatives and opting to rely on freelancers to perform a multitude of tasks from pitching ideas to sustaining an advertising campaign.
The sluggish economy has stressed many agencies causing those employers to suffer difficulties in covering the cost of maintaining staff employees.
It costs a lot these days to maintain a regular employee on staff (payroll taxes, healthcare, insurance, etc.).
Outsourcing of Freelance Work on the Rise
Some employers hoping to pinch a few nickels have turned to hiring freelancers and specifically designating them workers under agreement or “independent contractors” to function as part-time, intermittent and offsite workers that in truth provide the majority of the agency’s day to day creative needs.
Unfortunately, these employers wrongly conclude that simply claiming an employee is an independent contractor even if he is supplying regular, ongoing and predictable company tasks will relieve an employer of his responsibilities to State and federal taxation authorities.
It will not, and worse, this action could be considered intentional tax fraud.
If they could only see and hear the state and federal agency tax-collecting accountants slowly pursing their lemon-sucking lips into a shape that only slightly resembles a smile. “Penny wise and pound foolish,” they’d sneer in response, “Do these people think we were born yesterday on what? Audit that company.”
Copyright Ownership & Transfer, Employees and Independent Contractors
The three most common Intellectual Property (IP) themed lawsuits are likely those that center on independent contractor/employee issues, copyright ownership issues and the hijacking of a unique and moneymaking idea.
The issues that create these types of lawsuits tend to crop up again and again for the simple reason that the law protecting the rights of the players is not always intuitive for most people with the result that costly and inadvertent mistakes can easily be made.
The first important legal mine field to know more about is the one that pits the rights of a creative or freelancer against those of an employer.
Part I. Independent Contractor IP Rights v. Employee
Just for a moment pretend that you created this really innovative business and you hired your neighbor’s kid do the programming work for your website.