You probably spend a great deal of time on your animations and artwork – but how much time do you spend protecting them? Copyright issues are crucial to those working in media arts; we usually work in a visual medium meant to be seen by many, and our work can easily be duplicated, altered, and plagiarized. Someone could feasibly go through the effort of hand-drawing an exact copy of a 2D animation that you’ve produced, before changing the hair color of one character and claiming it as their original copyrighted work. Many have had their work stolen and claimed by others, with little way of proving the original owner of the concept.
So how can you protect yourself? Let’s take a look at some of the basics of U.S. copyright protection.
First, understand what copyright is and how it works.
U.S. copyright is a form of protection covering intellectual works such as music, art, literature, and other media, whether published or unpublished. Copyright protection is covered in title 17 of the U.S. Code and outlined in Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act.
In short, the owner of copyright to a work has the exclusive rights to display or perform it, create derivatives of it, and distribute copies for free, sale, or rental.
So how does one obtain copyright ownership?
The convenient thing about copyright is that you immediately own copyright to a work as soon as it’s committed to a fixed form. As soon as you pen a story, sketch a character, save a Word document, render a spinning spline, record a song or even commit it to sheet notation, you own copyright to it and are protected by U.S. law, as easily as that. Just make sure that, for music and audio-related works, you commit it to some official form of phonorecord.
And if something is created with someone else – a partner or a group?
Then each person involved in the creation is a co-owner of the work, with joint and equal shares of all rights involved. If you part ways with your co-creators, then you all still retain copyright of the works and may use, alter, or distribute them as you see fit unless you officially renounce copyright of the work to the others.
What about works created for an employer or client?
This is a special case known as “work for hire”. In these situations, because you’ve been paid by another to create the material, then your employer, their company, or your client owns copyright to the material. You can sometimes claim the right to include the works for display as part of your professional portfolio, though it’s considered in good taste to let your client/employer know that you’re doing it and find out if they have any explicit objections or if you might be violating some trade confidentially. You cannot, however, use the same works repeatedly for different paying employers.
For instance, although the Flash animations that I post on this site are my original creations, they are property and copyright About.com, because they’ve hired me and pay me to produce lessons and demonstrations on Flash techniques and usability. However, the original artwork that I use in some of the examples of how to import JPEGs and such is still mine by legal copyright, because it wasn’t commissioned for About.com, was created separately from the lesson for a different purpose that I wasn't paid for by About.com or anyone else, and isn’t actually related to the lesson material nor contributing in any way to the learning experience beyond being a placeholder. I could display things such as the SWF of the Flash Halloween Doll on my professional portfolio website to say “this is an example of the sort of work that I’m capable of; I designed this as part of a lesson for About.com”, but only with About’s knowledge and permission. However, I couldn’t display it on my personal website and drive traffic there to say “look at this cool thing I did!”
If obtaining copyright is so easy, why should you be worried about copyright protection?
Obtaining copyright isn’t the issue; proving it in the case of legal contest is. Most cases of plagiarism that are taken to court are a result of one person stealing another’s original idea and, with only minimal modifications, proceeding to use it for profit. The main issue that the judge faces is proving who created the idea first and thus owns the original copyright, before determining if the second work is indeed a deliberate copy of the first and thus violating copyright despite any alterations.
Click through to the next page to learn various methods of obtaining proof of copyright and registration.