Being a creator requires skills across several disciplines; not only do you have to conquer the terrifying obstacle of a blank page or a video recorder set at zero, but you also have to try and market your work and manage what is essentially a small business at the same time. Life as an independent creator requires learning a lot of skills and wearing a lot of hats, but one area that artists can struggle with is grasping intellectual property laws and rights as they relate to their work.
Intellectual property, particularly copyright in the case of creators, can feel daunting or confusing, or like something that concerns studios that produce big budget works. But copyright is important to every creator, and understanding the basics can help every artist protect their work and their income.
Copyright is automatic. The good news for creators that don’t double as lawyers is that copyright is automatically conferred once you place a work in a fixed, tangible medium, so there isn’t anything you need to do in order to gain copyright other than publish what you created. That includes your writing, your music, your films or other recordings — any expression that you can put on paper or online. There is a catch, however; while you might not need to file anything in order to gain copyright on your work, you do need to file for a copyright with the Copyright Office if you’re looking to sue for copyright infringement.
Even if you created it, you might not own the copyright. Counterintuitive as it sounds, a creator might not own the copyright to a work they create if they’ve created it for someone else. Under the concept of “work for hire”, if you’ve agreed to create something for another person or company, the chances are that you’ve signed an agreement stipulating that they own whatever you create, including all of the associated intellectual property rights. The same can be true if you’re creating on the side while working full-time for someone else; some employment agreements dictate that the company owns whatever you create while in their employ, even if it’s during your off-hours.
Using others’ work isn’t always infringement, but be cautious. We might be inclined to think that the use of someone else’s work is always infringement, and that should it happen to us we would be at the ready to report the violation to anyone and everyone, but it isn’t quite so simple. Under the doctrine of “fair use”, creators are allowed some limited copying of copyrighted works for the purposes of education, research and criticism. That doesn’t mean that others can copy your work wholesale and repackage it under the guise of “fair use”, nor does that mean that you can do the same without careful consideration of the rules and restrictions. If you’re considering using someone else’s work as part your own, it’s best to proceed with caution and familiarize yourself with the principles of “fair use.”
Copyright can feel complicated, but it’s an important law to help creators protect their work and ensure that they’re able to use and profit from their work as they choose. You can learn more about the basic concepts of copyright here.