3 Ways to Protect Copyright to Your Brand and Work as a Creative or Freelancer

Part of being a professional creative is protecting your brand – for most of us, this means slapping a copyright notice on the bottom our manuscript pages or stamping a watermark over images we post online.

After all, copyright is implicit in your work from the moment you’ve put pen to paper or raised the viewfinder to your eye.

But putting a copyright symbol on your work doesn’t do a great deal in terms of providing actual protection for your work or your brand – it’s a bit like pushing the lock button on an older car without an alarm system, it’ll keep the honest thieves out but anyone who really wants to steal the car that day is going to pop the lock and drive away with it.

So what can you do about it?

Start by Marking Your Turf

Adding a copyright notice, embedding a watermark and including author information in a digital file are all adequate means of establishing the fact that YOU created something and YOU intend on keeping control over it.

None of these are going to stop a determined copyright violator, especially in a world where the internet encourages the sharing and free exchange of ideas.

But there is a difference between “sharing” and “stealing” – so your job as a creative professional has to include embedding your brand on your work to the highest possible degree.

Most software includes fields where you can add information about yourself, your project and even your client. PhotoShop, Word and Acrobat all have mechanisms build in to encourage creatives to include their ownership information with the files they create.

These tools aren’t much use if you don’t take the few minutes required to set the information up so that it applies to your documents.

In Word, for example, you can add yourself as a document author just one time and that information will attach itself to every file you create from that point forward.

PhotoShop, as a powerhouse in the digital creative arsenal, has more deeply-rooted information panels available – particularly if you’re willing to spend a little extra money on one of the third-party services such as Digimarc which will enable you to put an invisible but permanently traceable watermark into your images that is unique to you.

In general, if you have taken the time to keep your name, contact information and ownership of the creative work on the file in some manner, a copyright violator has to work pretty hard to circumvent your intentions – and that is something the court will take a dim view of should the need for litigation arise.

Six Simple Steps to Copyright Registration

The simplest, most effective protection you can protect your work as a creative professional is official copyright registration; this takes the “marking your turf” approach to protecting your intellectual property to the next level.

In recent years, this process has become so streamlined and efficient, it’s very simple and takes little time – the fee is even quite reasonable.

The copyright registration process is as follows:

  1. Be sure your trade name isn’t already in use by checking the Public Catalog of the United States Copyright Office, known online as the Electronic Copyright Office or eCO.
  2. Determine whether your registration needs to be done via traditional mail or can be done online by checking the eCO guidelines.
  3. Create a login to the eCO after viewing their tutorial PowerPoint presentation
  4. Register your work by clicking the “register a new claim” button, followed by the “start registration” link and relevant prompts that follow
  5. Review your registration – it is vital you get the details of your registration correct the first time – and pay the associated fees (at the time of writing, the eCO standard fee is just $35 per registration, but fees are subject to change)
  6. Upload the work pertinent to the registration and breathe a sigh of relief

It can take up to six months to receive your certificate of registration from the Copyright Office, however, the effective date of your copyright will be the date on which your documents were submitted.

The point is, it’s well worth $35 to know that if someone infringes on your copyright, you now have the law in your corner to seek damages.

Two cool things people often overlook about the process of registering copyrights that are important to you as a professional creative:

  1. You can register your copyright of work that has already been published, provided you didn’t surrender the copyright to the publisher at the time of publication; and,
  2. You can attach more than one “work” to each registration.

That second point is really worth remembering, particularly if you do digital art, photography or any other high-volume creative work – you can literally attach as many files as you can click the buttons for to that single $35 registration.

Previously-published works have slightly different rules, but you can still register hundreds of images for one fee – that kind of peace of mind is definitely a bargain.

As an independent contractor, many freelance designers and graphic artists have had a situation where they created an ad, logo or other artwork for a client only to have the client say, “Thanks, but we don’t really like your concept.”

This is disappointing – but even more so for those of us who’ve flipped through a magazine or newspaper a month or more later and found “our work” staring back at us in the form of an advertisement or corporate rebranding campaign.

If you’re paid for the work, that’s one thing. But in a cut-throat business where people make creative pitches without compensation in an effort to get gigs, there are ample opportunities for creative work to go unrewarded.

This doesn’t necessarily make the business the “bad guy” – some people simply don’t understand that an idea is a form of property, and should be handled the same as any other property in a transaction.

How to Protect Yourself Using Copyright Escrow

One way that creative freelance workers can protect themselves and manage the copyright of conceptual artwork is by using an escrow service.

This is something that has been common in the computing community for years, and is increasing in popularity among creatives because it promotes fairness by both parties involved in a transaction.

Creative, copyright or IP escrow services like Kunvay offer the client and the creative an opportunity to collaborate on a project and fairly transfer the copyright of content from the artist to the client once the project has reached a satisfactory completion on both sides.

This means the company gets their concept artwork and the creative gets their payment and both side go their separate ways.

So if the client later decides to give the concept to another creative or agency for refinement or multiple uses, the initial designer doesn’t lose out on being compensated fairly at the start.

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About the Author: Kimberly Tweed studied magazine editing and publishing at Drake University. She spent over a decade working her way up the food chain at award-winning newspapers and magazines in Southeast England before returning to her native Oregon, where she works as a writer, designer and communications guru.