As a graphic designer, I always am asked by people about getting the copyrights of images that I create for them. What I’ve realized over time is that many people truly don’t understand copyright ownership as well as identifying what can and can’t be owned with that. So let’s look at the basics of it all.
What is a Copyright?
A copyright is the ownership of an image, recording, visual representation, lyrics, or architectural design among others that someone can prove that they are the original creator of. As soon as someone creates something along these lines, they become the owner of that item until either die (which copyright actually lasts 70 years after death as well) or if the original creator sells the creation to another buyer. Which at that time, the copyright transfers over to the new owner.
So for example, when I am in the process of creating a design for someone, I am the owner of the design until the final payment is made. Often someone will ask me to send a written document declaring that I am issuing the copyright to them. However, once they make a payment as well as document on their end that a payment was made, the copyright is transferred over to the new owner.
What isn’t Copyrightable?
The thing that people have to be very careful of with a copyright is trying to create / copy likenesses of things and saying they own a copyright of that item. For example, if you loved Mickey Mouse and wanted to create a new image of Mickey riding a dinosaur because no one had ever done that before, you do not own the copyright of the resulting image. Why is that do you say? The original character is not under your ownership so therefore, the likeness of Mickey Mouse in any way shape or form can not be used without the expressed documented consent of Walt Disney. Therefore, you may create a nice picture of Mickey, but you won’t be able to do anything with it except look at it. If you tried to sell it to someone without permission, you would truly be committing copyright infringement which is prosecutable. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop people from doing it all over the place.
Do you have to register for a Copyright?
Legally, you don’t have to do anything other than personally document your creation date of your entity (if you’re using a computer, it puts a date stamp on the original creation which makes life even easier for you). However, if you feel that you’ve got a million dollar idea that someone may steal from you and you’d like to prosecute them one day for it, then you can register your copyright with the Federal Government. This is truly only for people that want to have all legal (prosecutable) rights over their creations though.
So to put it in the easiest terms possible, a copyrighted image is owned by the original creator until that creator transfers the copyright as a result of payment for services or by issuing a transfer of copyright document for pro-bono work done for someone.
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