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Copyright and Design: Who Owns What?

Thanks to social networking and the Internet, finding great design ideas and inspiration has never been easier. On the flip side, technology also make it super easy for someone to steal your work. Literally, a screenshot or a right click to “save image” is all it takes for someone to grab your photo or carefully crafted design.

This also can come into play when you hire a photographer, videographer or graphic designer to create work for your business or on behalf of your client. It’s important to know who owns the work product or copyright, whether the designer can use that work in his portfolio or with other clients.

So, how do you know who owns what?

First, let’s define copyright: A form of protection for “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, choreographic, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations. Copyright protection does not extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, title, principle, or discovery. In short, whomever creates the work is the author and therefore has the copyright on that work.

The second important term to understand is “work for hire.” An employee who creates something within the scope of her job would not retain the copyright; the employer would be considered the author. If you’re hiring someone as an independent contractor and want to legally retain the rights to the work created, the contract needs to spell that out clearly.

If the work is not made for hire, then the designer retains the copyright. If you, as a business, want to have the copyright, you’ll need to discuss that with the designer and detail that in a contract. You’ll want to specify if the copyright covers the work as it is or if it can be altered or modified. This also could be important if a business wants to ensure a designer doesn’t use a similar design for another client.

When you’re considering hiring a designer, ask about copyright and if the designer feels strongly about retaining the copyright or if he’s OK with a “work for hire” contract. Either way, it’s always good to discuss these legal matters and get decisions in writing. It will surely save time and confusion down the road.

Visit Copyright.gov for details on copyright law, FAQs, information on registering a copyright and more.

Have a great week,

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