Do you copyright your materials after you create them in your business?
I’m not an intellectual property attorney. But I’ve had my small business work stolen enough times that I know how to protect myself.
It’s really important that you do copyright your work officially through your government channels. Yes, most governments say that the moment you create something it is considered copyrighted. But the fact is if someone steals your work, you have to prove you were the first one to create it.
Submitting your materials officially to your government’s copyright office saves you a lot of headaches later on.
What work can you copyright?
Anything with your unique content that you created yourself:
- group and training program materials
- forms and worksheets
- books (physical or ebooks)
- audio and video programs, including training programs, podcasts, etc.
- educational exercises
- your website content
- blog and article content
- student guides and participant workbooks
What can’t you copyright?
If you include someone else’s materials inside your work, you can’t copyright that portion of your work (because the copyright already belongs to the person who created it).
For instance, if you create a slide deck and use stock photos, you can’t copyright the photographic portion of your slide deck. But you can copyright the words, if they are your own.
If you’ve been hired by a client to custom-create a piece of work, you need to determine per your contract who owns that copyright. It’s likely that, as a work-for-hire project, that output is owned by the person who hired you to create it.
It’s your material, you should protect it.
If you’re in the USA, you can upload your material via the US Copyright Office website. If you upload your materials, it’s only a small fee. It takes a few months for them to process your paperwork if you upload it digitally. If you mail hard-copy, the fee is slightly more expensive, but it can take 9-12 months for them to process it! So if you can, upload your copyright application and materials digitally. (Note: fees change, so check out the Copyright Office website for their current fees.)
Read more about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which protects your online material on the USA Copyright Office website. In 2019, the CASE Act (Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act) was passed which allowed for some copyright disputes to be brought to small claims court, making it an affordable alternative.
Bundling your material pays off
You have to pay the copyright registration fee for each item you copyright. However, the USA Copyright Office allows you to “bundle” material together and call it a “program.”
For instance, when I copyrighted the Mastermind Group Facilitator Training class, my bundle included:
- my lesson plan
- my student guide
- all the forms I give to students
- any slides I created
I called my submission to the Copyright Office “The Mastermind Group Facilitator Training Program” and uploaded just one PDF file with all the contents.
I also take all my articles and blog posts from one year, put them together in one PDF, and uploaded the one bundle entitled something like, “Karyn Greenstreet 2015 articles” for each year. If I had sent them as separate PDF files, it would have cost me about $35 for each PDF/item I submitted; because I bundled it into one PDF file, I paid just $35 for the whole submission.
Once you get your copyright number back from the government, put it on everything: your website (if you copyrighted it), your forms, your student/group materials, etc. Let people clearly know that you have an official date stamp of when you created your materials in case someone copies your work.
This is especially important if you have created a program or system from scratch. You put a huge amount of time and effort into creating your materials and your process. Take the 15 minutes and a few dollars to protect it.
What about the “poor man’s copyright?”
There is a concept called the Poor Man’s Copyright where you send a copy of your work to yourself in a sealed envelope, so that the date of copyright is established by the postmark. This is what the US Copyright Office has to say about that:
The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a “poor man’s copyright.” There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.
What about copyright in other countries?
Many countries have agreements to honor each other’s copyrighted materials. Some countries do not have a copyright submission process, but recognize outside for-profit and non-profits companies that accept copyright submissions. It might be called a “copyright office” or an “intellectual property (IP) office” in your country.
One hint that a website is the official government website for copyright information and protection is that the URL of their website may have “gov” or “govt” in the name.
- USA Copyright Office
- USA Patent and Trademark Office
- Canada Intellectual Property Office
- Australian Attorney General’s Office
- Australian IP
- United Kingdom (copyrights, patents and trademarks)
- New Zealand Ministry of Economic Development (copyrights, patents and trademarks)
Be careful that you get to your official national government site for copyright information and applications. There are a lot of for-profit websites that offer to submit copyrights for you, but it’s not the same as getting the information directly from the government agency that does the work and knows the laws.
The best place to get your questions answered about copyrighting (and patents and trademarks) is your official government website devoted to the topic.
If you find a website for your country’s government office that I’ve not included in this blog post, please let me know so that we can all share the resources. Thanks!
Copyright versus Trademark
Note that a copyright is not the same thing as a trademark or a patent. See your countries’ websites to learn the difference. This article from LegalZoom entitled How do I know if I need trademark or copyright protection? may help clarify things for you.
For instance, you can’t copyright the title of your book. But if you have a training or group program with the same name as your book, you can trademark that program title.
You can trademark a logo or a business name, but you can’t copyright them.
The Final Story
So…what if someone does steal your website text? Read my blog post about Are Thieves Stealing Your Website Text? It includes information about what to do if you find that someone has broken your copyright.
It is well worth the time and money to officially copyright your materials and the work you have created. Add time to your calendar right now to focus on this important task.
I’ll get off my soapbox now. 🙂
Read the companion article, Who Owns Your Website?