These days we spend an exorbitant amount of time online or in some form of cloud configuration. These virtual spaces are where we connect and communicate and, most importantly, create. The Internet and the cloud have been godsends for creative people who want to create and publish their various types of art, but it also puts them (and everybody else, really) at a huge risk. There are, after all, people who still believe that everything published online is fair use.
If It is On the Internet I Can Use It, Right?
Probably the most popular and viral example of this happened in 2012. A small newspaper in Oregon plagiarized a blog post written by Duane Lester and he went in and confronted them about it and recorded the encounter on video. The situation ended well for Lester, who finally got the newspaper to cut a check for the “reprint” of the blog post and for a few weeks enjoyed life as an Internet celebrity.
It doesn’t always end happily, though. Musician Jonathan Coulton made headlines in 2013 when the producers of Glee stole his cover of “Baby Got Back” and used it in the show without crediting him. Coulton explored legal action but later abandoned the effort, explaining on his blog that he couldn’t afford the legal fees—something that the well paid attorneys at Fox could certainly make happen. In this case, the “bully” won by assuming, correctly, that the little guy—even though he had properly licensed all of his work—simply couldn’t put up much of a fight.
What makes Coulton’s case unique is that he really had covered his legal bases. He made sure his own cover of the song was legal—paying for the rights so that he could cover it in the first place and then paying a portion of the money he earned from the song back to the original artist.
Where things get tricky is that Coulton licenses all of his original work under a creative commons license. It is a license mostly respected by fans but is obviously not respected by “the big guys”. It also doesn’t do much to stop illegal downloads or file sharing but, as Coulton explains, it does incentivize people to try out his music and most of them happily kick in a couple of bucks when they like what they hear either directly for the song or through his site’s donation portal.
Why You Need Protections
The things you make and create and think up, whether they are creatively based, technologically based or otherwise are, by rote, considered intellectual property and many of them are eligible for intellectual property protections.
There are three primary types of intellectual property protections that you can assign to your work: copyright, trademark, and patent. The World Intellectual Property Organization does a great job of breaking them down.
What is important right now is that you understand that your intellectual property is not always automatically protected. Many believe that once it has been written and published either online or sent through the mail, work is automatically copyrighted. This is not, however, always the case. It is important that you take the proper steps to protect your intellectual property so that you don’t get taken advantage of later.
How to Protect Your Property
How you protect your intellectual property is going to depend on the type of property you want to protect. For example, if you are a musician, you can release your work under the same creative commons license as Jonathan Coulton but that only covers people who listen to your work. If someone wants to use your work in something designed to turn a profit (like a promotional video or a soundtrack or compilation album), they should have to pay you a licensing fee.
This is a good thing for artists, who should be looking for publishing deals at every turn. Currently, services like TuneCore sync licensing are out there to help musicians make their compositions available to Music Supervisors for worldwide sync licensing opportunities in TV, Film, Commercials, Video Games, and more.
Music, film and writing are all relatively easy to set up with the right protections. Visual arts like photography, paintings, etc. are a little bit more difficult. Many artists, rather than try to copyright the images of their work, try to discourage theft by only uploading low resolution images and covering the images with watermarks. There are, though, legal protections that visual artists can put in place to protect themselves. These are especially important for graphic artists and others who sell imagery online. An intellectual property attorney can help you figure out what kind of licensing you need.
Don’t ever let someone tell you that publishing something online makes that something fair use for everyone else. You worked hard on your idea and you deserve to be compensated if someone else wants to use it for their own gain. Protect yourself against theft, file sharing, torrenting and the like and set yourself up with monetary safeguards like sync licensing—it doesn’t take much time (or, really, a ton of effort) and you’ll be glad you have those protections in place later on. Trust us.