Hi. It’s me again: the copyright geek.
If you’ve been a reader of this blog for a while, you know that I have a special interest in copyright and copyright law. I try to abide by ethics of copyright — that is the nicety of crediting the originator of a work even if it’s not officially registered as a copyright. Typically I credit the image or text source with an in-text link (or citation). I always credit original creators in my written work or design work for school (um, it’s called plagiarism if you don’t!). It is, however, NOT illegal to copy somebody’s unregistered creative work — just highly unethical, and you can get into trouble doing so whether or not the entity has registered the work you ripped off. Bottom line: don’t copy.
Here’s some helpful information that I should have shared with you when I originally talked about copyright: you can easily register your creative work (art, music, poetry, written work, etc.) with the United States Copyright Office (if you’re from the US. Sorry, I do not know where to register creative works in other countries). It’s quick, easy, and relatively cheap. In fact, I’m going to start registering ALL logos I create (aside from my personal branding marks) from here on out, as well as register my research (whenever that gets rolling …). It costs anywhere from $20+ to register a piece of creative work. The benefit of registering your work with the government — ESPECIALLY in the digital age — is that if (and when, as is becoming the norm) somebody rips off your creative work, you have LEGAL GROUNDS to ask them to stop by showing them your certificate that is backed by the government. If they don’t take down the work in question, or at the very least give you credit, you could sue them.
Here’s where it gets tricky: (at least in the case of design) the work in question must be a near exact match to your original work. The work in question needs to be a clearly stolen image that hasn’t had much alteration. Side note: It’s rather annoying to me that somebody can simply change a few things around and their rip-off work could stand up against your original creation in court, but that’s how it works.
What does registering your creative work protect you against? It protects you against somebody making money off of your creative ideas. For example, I recently discovered that my chimesdesign logo from 2009 has been used as generic clip-art and has been tacked on to other designs and sold to unknowing clients. I was tipped off by a blog search term (removed because people have continued to steal this image) and decided to further investigate. Fortunately, I registered my mark, so I’m hoping that these people will take their ripped-off design down from their website once I’ve contacted them.
My original work, as blogged about here:
The ripped off artwork (by a design firm in the Chicago area, and was used by Alexander Photography — not linking the design firm because I don’t want to give them business, but I’m linking the photography company since they had nothing to do with stealing this image, AND because her images are COPYRIGHTED):
The image above is clearly stolen from a low-res version of my logo, and likely the color was changed in photoshop as you can tell by the rough edges. Here are some examples of the logo being used as a watermark. I’m not going to ask the client (Alexander Photography) to remove these photos as I’m assuming that she was not at fault, and she no longer uses the logo. I am going to ask that the design firm remove that mark from their portfolio as they did not create it. From what I can gather from Alexander Photography’s Facebook page, the ripped-off logo was created in 2012 or 2013.
If you are concerned that your work has been stolen, a quick way to check is to upload an image of it into Google Image Search. The search isn’t 100% effective, but will find most instances of your image on the web. Obviously, that leaves out all instances of your image that have been published in print. If all the instances of your image found in Google Image Search belong to you, then you’re in the clear, but if you find a weird, funky, pixelated rip-off version (like I did), you can take action — but ONLY if you own the copyright. You do have the right to ask the person to credit you or remove the work in question, regardless of if you own the rights, but the difference is that you have no legal grounds to ask for the other party to comply without the government registration. I’ve found that if you’re nice about it, provide a bit of documentation, and give the person the benefit of the doubt, usually they will credit you. I am not that nice when somebody’s stolen work of mine and SOLD it for profit. But, if I come across a recipe from this blog, or another image from this blog, I ask that the person credit me*.
As fellow creatives, what you can do beyond registering your own work is to vow to not steal others’ work. You can be pro-active as a designer and check Google Image Search when working on a piece, which will hopefully show you any similar images that already exist. The real issue when a creative steals work and sells it as their own work isn’t just that the creative is stealing, the creative is usually passing off a stolen work to a customer who has no idea their new work is stolen. This is no different than selling a stolen piece of merchandise. Fortunately the photographer who bought the rip-off of my logo has rebranded, so I won’t have to ask her to quit using it. Had I noticed this copyright infringement a year ago, it would have been a bigger issue (probably between the agency in question and the photography company).
Designers, creatives: REGISTER YOUR WORK — especially logos (also called “trademarks” for a reason). It’s fast. It’s cheap. It’s easy.
I don’t know much about copyright for written word or music. Anybody know a thing or two and want to chime in on this discussion?
*Note that exceptions to the copyright rule include parody. That means that Sarah is in the clear. 😉