Copyright Law 101 for Your Small Business

You need to understand the ins and outs of copyright law to protect your business and its valuable IP. Your most important questions are answered in this article.

March 15, 2023
Alexis Konovodoff
6 minute read
Copyright Law 101 for Your Small Business
Alexis Konovodoff
Written by Alexis Konovodoff
Written byAlexis Konovodoff
Updated September 28, 2023
Edited by Zac Aiuppa
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As a small business owner, you can’t ignore the importance of copyright law. While it can often seem confusing, it’s also vital for you to understand how it works. This way, you can protect your company’s valuable assets and avoid sticky legal issues from unintentionally violating somebody else’s copyright.

Let’s walk through what you need to know about copyright law for your small business, starting with the most crucial question.

Copyright law allows an author or creator to protect the artistic expression in any piece of original work. Importantly, common law copyright applies to any original work from the moment it’s created. While it’s possible — and recommended — to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office, it’s not a requirement. Common law copyright still applies to the work.

Owning the copyright to an original work gives you the right to sell, copy, display, distribute, and perform the work in any way you see fit. It also helps to protect you from others using your work. For example, let’s say you’ve written a blog post for your website. Common law copyright automatically protects the contents of that post. If somebody else tries to sell or distribute that post without your permission, you can pursue the offender legally under copyright law.

What is an Original Work?

Copyright does not protect the underlying idea behind your work. It only applies to the artistic expression of that idea. For example, it’s okay for two people to have the idea to write a blog post about a specific subject. Copyright only applies to each post’s actual content.

So, “original work” is a term used to define any artistic expression of an idea. It’s also a wide-ranging term that includes the artistic expression of all of the following:

  • Books

  • Plays

  • Articles

  • Paintings

  • Poems

  • Sculptures

  • Music

  • Film

  • Photographs

  • Artwork

  • Sound recordings

  • Architecture

  • Computer code and programs

  • Recordings of original dance, mime, dramatic, or musical performances

The key takeaway is that original work is not the idea that underpins the work but the artistic expression of it.

Although common law copyright automatically applies to your original work, you may also want to register your copyright officially. Registered copyright means receiving documentation that you can point to in copyright infringement cases. This evidence makes it easier for you to take legal action, as it eliminates the need to prove that you’re the creator of the original piece.

You can register your copyright easily online. The U.S. Copyright Office provides several forms for you to fill out, which allow you to register individually or as part of a group. Before filling out these forms, you must create an online account with the U.S. Copyright Office’s online registration system. You also need to pay a fee related to the type of registration you’re filing, ranging from $45 for a single application to over $500 for reconsideration requests or when filing multiple copyrights. The U.S. Copyright Office provides a full breakdown of the fees you may need to pay.

You’ll need to submit a copy of your work as part of the registration process. You can deposit this work electronically in the following cases.

  • The work is unpublished.

  • The work is a three-dimensional piece for which the deposit requirement includes prints or photos of the work.

  • The work is already published electronically, such as an article published on your website.

The U.S. Copyright Office will likely require you to send a physical copy of the work if you published it in a physical format before registering. This also applies if you published the work electronically and then published it physically. For example, if you publish an eBook and then sell it as a physical book before applying for copyright, you must send a physical copy. 

Copyright does not cover every single thing you commit to paper. In fact, there are several exceptions where copyright law does not apply. These include the following:

  • Names

  • Titles

  • Short phrases

  • Facts and common information

  • Slogans

  • Non-recorded impromptu performances 

  • Government publications

Furthermore, copyright only applies for 70 years after the death of the original work’s author. Anyone can freely use a previously copyrighted piece if the author has been dead for more than 70 years.

In the case of short phrases and slogans, copyright does not apply to any phrases you use for business purposes. However, you can still protect slogans and phrases by applying for a trademark. Trademarks are functionally similar to copyrights, but the two are not the same thing. Importantly, you always have to register a trademark to receive legal protection, which is not true with copyright.

Copyright infringement occurs when someone who is not the creator of an original piece does something that only the creator has the right to do. Such actions include selling, copying, distributing, or performing the piece without the copyright holder’s permission.

You’re entitled to monetary compensation if somebody uses your copyrighted work. Copyright holders can claim statutory damages between $750 to $30,000 per copyright infringement. These damages can rise to $150,000 per infringement in cases where a court determines that the violation occurred willfully. Of course, you’re also potentially subject to financial liability if you infringe on somebody else’s copyright.

Plagiarism is slightly different from copyright infringement because it involves acting as though you are the creator of somebody else’s original work. For example, copying a passage directly from an article without citing where it came from is plagiarism because you’re claiming the work as your own. 

Plagiarism isn’t technically illegal under copyright law, but a copyright holder can still claim for breach of copyright in plagiarism cases. Avoiding plagiarism accusations is often a simple case of citing the creator of the original work if you use it in your piece.

What Are the Benefits of Copyrights for a Small Business?

Registered copyright provides legal proof that you’re the creator of an original work and creates a public record of your ownership. You have to pay a fee for the registration, but this amount often pales compared to the money you’d spend on legal action without proof of copyright ownership. Businesses that create a lot of original work can save enormous amounts of money in the long term.

Copyright ownership is also useful from a marketing perspective. It demonstrates to customers that your company is innovative enough to develop unique ideas that require protection. It also helps consumers see where they can go to get your original work.

You need the owner’s permission to use a copyrighted piece. As a general rule, you should avoid using any original work if you cannot locate the copyright owner.

If the creator attaches their contact information to the work, you can simply get in touch to request permission, but you should never assume that it will be granted. They have the full right to deny your request for any reason. You can increase your chances by explaining exactly why you want to use their piece and how it may benefit them if they grant permission.

If you can’t find contact details attached to the original work, your next step is to check the U.S. Copyright Office’s database. Assuming the creator registered the work, you’ll be able to find their details and how to contact them. If not, you can work with a professional copyright service to track down the owner. 

Maintaining copyright is crucial to prevent others from trying to use your work to generate profit for themselves. Common law copyright automatically protects original work, but registered copyright makes it much easier for you to prove ownership if legal issues occur.

If you’d like to register your copyright but want to avoid completing several forms, Trademark Engine is here to help. We offer a simple copyright registration service that starts at $99 plus federal filing fees. Find out how copyright registration can benefit your business by contacting us today via the Trademark Engine website.

Trademark Engine is not a law firm and none of the information on this website constitutes or is intended to convey legal advice. General information about the law is not the same as advice about the application of the law in a particular factual or legal situation. Individual facts and circumstances as well as legal principles including but not limited to the ones referenced on this website can affect the outcome of any given situation.

Trademark Engine cannot and does not guarantee that an application will be approved by the USPTO, that a mark will be protected from infringement under common US trademark law, or that any ensuing litigation or dispute will lead to a favorable outcome. If you want or have an interest in obtaining legal advice with respect to a specific situation or set of circumstances, you should consult with the lawyer of your choice.

Originally published on March 15, 2023, and last edited on September 28, 2023.
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