Are you protecting yourself from intellectual property theft?

Mar 6, 2018

Imagine that you've spent a considerable amount of time creating your version of a masterpiece. Whether it is a painting, a book, a musical score, software, or a graphic design logo, a freelancer’s craft is often a reflection of their time, resources, and talents. There is also the monetary value that is attached to your work or intellectual property.

What is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property is commonly and simply defined as a work or invention that is the result of one’s mind or creativity. With the proliferation of social media and the ease of digitizing one’s work, we often share or even overshare our intellectual property without thinking about the implications. Now, imagine the aforementioned masterpiece being stolen by someone else.

Innocuous Mistake or Something Else?

A few years ago, I posted a micro-blog on my personal page. It took me about an hour to write and it addressed a topic that I was deeply passionate about. My intent was simply to provide my take on an issue that was trending on Facebook. Because I wanted to respond in a timely manner, I decided to post it on FB rather than on my blog site. No big deal.

A couple of days later, a post came through my newsfeed. When I first read it, I thought, “Wow, what is the likelihood that this person would have the same exact sentiments about this particular subject matter?” I looked at his post more carefully. Not only were our ideas eerily similar but so was our diction, our syntax, and the overall way in which we expressed our ideas.

Then, I pulled my head out of the sand: Those were my words attributed to someone else on his page.

I went to the person's page and lo and behold, it became quite clear that he had copied and pasted what I said as if it were his own. I politely messaged him and attached a side-by-side screenshot of his post and mine. I asked him if he would attribute the content back to my page. If not, I asked that he take it down.

He apologized profusely and agreed to add the attribution. I was satisfied with how he handled it, but the experience left me with an unsettled feeling. If his post hadn't come through my newsfeed, I would not have known. I still believed that it was an innocuous mistake (although another part of me wanted to go into full English professor mode and have a serious discussion about plagiarism).

Yes, this was just a FB micro-blog, but it’s the principle that matters. What about larger, more complex works or pieces that are not intended for dissemination on social media platforms? Property is property and no one likes to have their work used without permission or proper compensation. As a freelancer, what can you do to protect yourself?

What Type of Content Should be Copyrighted?

Content–such as fiction and non-fiction books, lyrics, jingles, periodicals, 2D and 3D artwork, drawings, apps, computer programs, animation, television shows, and commercial photos–is often copyrighted. Although this list isn’t exhaustive, it is a good starting point. If you are a freelancer who creates in one of these areas, consider copyrighting your work.

Most creative content is copyrighted after it has been completed/produced. It is also worth noting that if you use a third party for the distribution or publishing of your work (e.g. a book self-publishing company) the company may take care of copyrighting your work on your behalf—just be sure to confirm this.

What are the Advantages of Copyrighting Your Work?

The advantage of copyrighting your work is that you are protecting yourself in case there are issues later on about rightful ownership and possible infringement. It alleviates doubt as to who owns the work and when the work was originally created. The Library of Congress explains:

“Registration is recommended for a number of reasons. Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Copyright Registration” and Circular 38b, Highlights of Copyright Amendments Contained in the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), on non-U.S. works.”

Creative entrepreneurs in particular must be careful. Being diligent about protecting your intellectual and creative property may require a few extra steps, but being proactive is worth avoiding the heartache of potentially being tied up in litigation years later.

How Can You Protect Your Work?

Protecting your work can actually be a DIY endeavor. Depending on the nature of your content, you may want to consider registering your work with the Library of Congress. The fees are nominal depending on what you are copyrighting. Although ownership begins with creation, it is important, in my opinion, to have a paper trail.

Contrary to popular belief, the poor man's copyright, or emailing/mailing content to yourself to get a date and time stamp, is not recommended. The Library of Congress notes that, “There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.”

If copyrighting is not the best option for your work, you may want to think about trademarking or patenting it. The United States Patent and Trademark Office provides extensive information as to what content should be trademarked or patented and the process for doing so. And if you are not sure if you need one, or all three, check out this helpful video that differentiates between trademarks, patents, and copyright.

Lastly, there is always the option of seeking a good intellectual property lawyer. Whatever you decide to do, remember it’s your property and you want to protect it. Operating under the assumption of good will may not be enough, especially for freelancers.

Tyra Seldon

Tyra Seldon is a former English Professor turned writer, editor and small business owner. Her writing addresses the intersections of race, gender, culture and education.