Top Three Copyright Myths

As an attorney for artists, I hear a lot of interesting theories about how copyright works. And while some of those theories are genuinely innovative, many are rehashings of myths that have been traded as facts for years.

These three are my least favorite:

Mail Your Work to Yourself To Register the Copyright

This is a really good thing to do if you like (1) acts of futility, (2) getting mail or (3) not registering your copyrights.

In the United States, you can only register your copyright through the U.S. Copyright Office. The online registration process is fairly straightforward and the website, www.copyright.gov, has tons of helpful information in its FAQs and collection of circulars and publications. Simple registrations cost $35, while more complex ones cost $55.

You Can Copyright Your Idea

Copyright is a powerful right. As the owner, you essentially have a monopoly over what other people can do with your work. Because the right is so powerful, copyright only protects how ideas are expressed, not the ideas themselves.

Here’s a quick example of why copyright doesn’t protect ideas: If Desmond was the first person to paint a sunset, and copyright protected ideas, Desmond would be the only person who could create representations of sunsets for as long as his copyright in the painting lasted (which would be for his lifetime plus 70 years). When lots of people can interpret and express the same idea, we have a much richer environment.

You Need an Attorney To Register a Copyright

If you are registering one piece of artwork that you created and own, and you’re selling several copies of the work, you can likely handle the registration process on your own.

Of course, if you run into questions during the registration process or feel uncomfortable going the do-it-yourself route, by all means — talk with an attorney! But I encourage you to hire the attorney to teach you how to register your work, instead of just paying them to do it for you. Knowing how to register your work is an invaluable skill.

What kinds of myths or misconceptions about copyright do you run into most often?

Katie Lane is an attorney and negotiation coach in Portland, Oregon, helping artists and freelancers protect their rights and get paid fairly for the work they do. You can read her blog at WorkMadeForHire.net and follow her on Twitter: @_katie_lane 

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