Copyright infringement cases can be complex and expensive, as 70s rockers Led Zeppelin recently discovered.
If you’re under the age of 40 I should probably explain that ‘And it makes me wonder’ is a line from their famous anthem Stairway to Heaven. A long and expensive law suit had to decide whether the opening chord progression of this song was the band’s original creation, or whether it was copied from a track called Taurus recorded a couple of years earlier by the much less famous Spirit. Thirty million dollars or so rested on the outcome.
Several aspects of the case should make all businesses wonder about the things they consider to be their intellectual property. Many of the arguments centred on the creative process and the way that creations evolve.
Here are a few things businesses often assume, incorrectly, that they own.
Your logo and branding
You paid a designer to create it, so you own it, right? Well, maybe not. Unless the designer specifically assigned the copyright to you, you probably don’t. And if you got it from an online marketplace there’s every chance the designer may have sold something similar to countless other businesses.
The design of your website
The same applies. The originator of any creative work owns the copyright unless they specifically sign it over to you.
The content on your website and company brochures
You guessed it. The copywriter, photographer or illustrator owns it unless their contract terms assigned the copyright to you.
Software code created for your business
This can be a really contentious issue, particularly where applications are built on open source platforms. Also, software vendors often use a common core of code for different applications and clients. Always clarify how much of your system you will own before you sign off on the contract.
Where it gets complicated
The Stairway to Heaven case hinged around the creative process. As you might expect from a rock band in the 1970s, memories are a little hazy about exactly how the song was written and who was involved. Also, can a fairly common chord progression actually be protected by copyright – even if the two opening passages do sound similar?
When your branding and marketing materials were created you probably had some involvement in the process. Maybe you made a doodle of the sort of thing you wanted for a logo that the designer then turned into something professional. Does that make it your creation? Could you prove it? Could you afford to prove it?
You probably had some input into the website content through suggestions, edits and maybe even adding some copy of your own. Could you establish which bits are yours?
It gets more complicated if somebody copies designs or content that you think you own. If the copyright issue was never clearly addressed it’s going to be very hard for you to enforce your rights – because you might not actually have any. The designer or copywriter may not still be in business or might not want to be involved.
The simple lesson is this: sort out copyright and intellectual property issues at the time you have anything created for your business. Always ask designers, photographers, copywriters about their copyright policies before you instruct them to do anything – sometimes even they don’t know the law.
If your logo and brand identity are critical business assets you should get trademark protection, which is hard to do if you cannot establish ownership. Otherwise your stairway might be leading to an expensive legal wrangle rather than heaven.
If you’re concerned about ownership of your branding or marketing assets, or if somebody has accused you of infringing their copyright get in touch. The initial consultation is free and might just put your mind at ease.
Image attribute: By Happybeatle2 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons