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What You Need to Know about Copyright

by Margaret Penney | May 9, 2016

As designers and creatives it’s important to have a solid understanding of copyrighting. Copyrighting your work ensures that other people do not copy it, modify it, adapt it or publish it without your express consent. If your work is copyrighted then you can license it for use if you so wish or keep it to yourself. If you choose to license your work it can be a lucrative form of income for you, so it’s also financially motivating to understand the basics of copyrighting.

Copyrighting vs. Trademarks

One important thing to understand right away is that there are some elements that you cannot copyright and that you instead have to trademark. Here is a list of common things that cannot be copyrighted:

  • titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  • familiar symbols or designs;
  • mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring;
  • mere listings of ingredients or contents
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices
  • Common information such as calendars, measurement charts, TV guides
  • Government or legal documents

For instance, if you are very keen about your company name Doodle Designs, your name will not be copyrighted outright and anyone else will be able to use this name as well. If you wish to be the sole owner of this name then you’ll need to try to get a trademark and may want to also consult with a specialist attorney about the matter.

When does copyright begin?

Copyrighting begins the moment you create something substantial with pen on paper, on canvas, tablet or computer screen.

What are the simplest ways to copyright your work?

Copyrighting is fairly easy these days especially if your work is digital and created with a computer. Time stamps for file creation and modification allow for clear evidence of the time at which something was created. If you want to be extra careful you can keep a backup of all original files on an external HD. Or you could do what people in the old days would do, especially writers, which is mail the piece to yourself, the post office will create a legally binding time stamp for the work. In today’s age you could even email the work to yourself, which also creates a time stamp.

The goal is to have a record of when it was created, so if you see work substantially like yours in print or on the web and it was created after you created your masterpiece, then you have more of a claim to ownership, since you created it first.

If you want to completely ensure that your work is copyrighted though and also gain certain benefits, like the ability to ask for damages, then you will want to register your work officially.

Ways to deter copycats

With the advent of the Web it becomes much easier to steal digital reproductions of designers and artists work. So the first thing you must do is include a copyright statement on your websites to create a clear deterrent for would be copycats.

You can also add a copyright symbol right next to each work to make it clear that the work is copyrighted.

Beyond that, you can add watermarks both visible and digital to the images themselves or add a JavaScript to the images which disables the right-click and download image.

Each digital image also has a unique number and you can do regular searches for the images you used in your portfolio to see if the work is out there being credited to a different designer or artist.

What is considered a copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement is considered for work where a significant portion of what makes the work original is copied or adapted by another. Most countries have a set of requirements for this, so you are generally assured that in the U.S. and around the world there are fairly consistent methods for discerning copyright ownership.

What is fair use?

Your work can be used in news articles, for educational or private studies, and research without infringing on your copyright. The way this is ultimately discerned is if it does not infringe upon your ability to gain income from the work.

For example, if someone interviews you about your illustration and they include a low resolution image of your artwork then that is fair use since the reproduction of your work is not actually a commercially viable copy that could be printed for sale or placed on a commercial product. However, if somehow they linked to a high resolution print ready version of your artwork then that is not fair use, since this copy could be used for commercial purposes.

Who Owns Work You Create for a Client?

Generally, if you are creating work for a client and they pay you then they own copyright of that work—this is especially true if the work is a 100% custom design piece and not a template design.

You do not need to assign copyright to the client then in most cases. However it can be useful as an incentive for payment to make clear to your client that copyright belongs to them completely once the work is paid for.

What can I do if my work is stolen?

The first thing you can do is apply for an injunction to prevent any further copying of the work. This is particularly useful in cases where your artwork ends up being silk-screened on a whole line of throw pillows for instance.

You can ask the courts to have the copycat deliver all the copies to you as well, this helps you protect against further distribution.

You can claim damages or royalties, especially if you have also registered the work.

Depending on the severity of the copyright infringement or on how obvious of an infringement it is and whether you have clear proof, you can seek additional punitive damages.


Margaret Penney is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Margaret is a teacher, designer, writer and new media artist and founder of Hello Creative Co.


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