Starting a Business: What Should You Copyright?

Learn what elements of a U.S. business can and should be protected through U.S. copyright law.

By , Attorney · Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

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As a new business owner, you have an interest in ensuring that your work remains proprietary, and that no competitors rip off the results of your investment in it. But how far should you go in obtaining intellectual property protection over various aspects of your business? Let's look in particular at what elements of your business may be protected through U.S. copyright law.

How Does Copyright Law Protect Your Work?

Common examples of materials that can be the subject of copyright protection include books, brochures, photographs, designs, music, lyrics, plays, speeches, and computer code. (The basics of this law come from the Copyright Act of 1976.)

To obtain a copyright, you or your business must show three things, including that:

  1. you authored a creative work
  2. the work is original, and
  3. the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

That last piece is critical: You cannot copyright an idea, concept, or strategy for your business (contrary to what many executives believe). You can copyright only something that has actually been reduced to written or recorded form.

Interestingly, you can obtain copyright protection automatically as soon as you fix your creative work in a tangible medium (in other words, write or type something). But if you want the greatest level of protection, and the ability to actually sue infringers in federal court, you should register your creative work with the U.S. Copyright Office, which is the federal agency charged with administering copyrights.

The registration process, described on the Copyright Office's website, is relatively simple and can be completed online.

Once you obtain copyright protection over a creative work, you can prevent others from using that same work. For example, if you copyright an essay that you give to all your customers about your business philosophy (something many businesses might put on their websites), you could sue a competing business that tries to use your text for its own benefit.

Business Elements to Protect

As a starting point, realize that it's likely not worth obtaining federal copyright registration over every single written item that a new business produces. Rather, you should consider the creative works that are truly important to your business's operations or identity.

Here are some examples of items upon which you might wish to file copyright registration:

Copyrighting Print Materials

Most obviously, you should consider obtaining federal copyright protection over any print materials that are central to your business. For example, if your business produces important brochures, magazines, or explanatory materials aimed at consumers, these would be good candidates for federal registration. Note that if you update these materials substantially (such as once per year), you might wish to obtain a new copyright registration on the updated version to avoid any doubt as to your rights.

Copyrighting Elements of Your Business Website

Most businesses know they need good Web content in order to advertise themselves. If your business is investing a lot of money on the content, graphics, and overall design of its website, give consideration to protecting your ownership of the copyright in those materials.

Importantly, you might not be the formal copyright owner over every aspect of your website. Remember that copyright protection is vested in the author of the work. If you hired outside firms or individuals to create your website or various pieces of it, they are the authors of the parts that they have created unless you have a formal assignment agreement to transfer their rights.

If your website or any parts of it were created in-house by your own employees, then your business owns the copyright for those parts.

If you're contemplating an agreement with an outside firm to create your website or any parts of it, you can include ownership of the copyright as part of your agreement. If you specify in your contract with the firm that your business will own the copyright to the final product(s), you will be able to use those works for other purposes if you want to.

Assuming you hold the copyright, you should begin using the copyright symbol (©) immediately, as a method of informing others that you intend to exercise control over the production, distribution, and display of the work. So, if your company has written the copy for your website, go ahead and use the copyright symbol in connection with the copy.

Copyrighting Other Creative Works

Your strategy might be different if your business is itself in the business of producing creative works. In that case, you might wish to do more thorough copyrighting.

If, for example, you paint paintings, draw custom designs, take photographs, or write articles, it might be worth obtaining copyright on each of those items.

This is particularly true if you believe you may develop revenue from licensing your work (for instance, through licensing your photography to multiple users). For creative professionals, copyright registration could be an essential piece of the overall business strategy.

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