7 Things Online Business Owners Need to Know About Copyright Law

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Written By Brian T. Edmondson, Esq.

Hi, I'm Brian. I'm an internet entrepreneur & lawyer. I write about all things internet business & law.

Hey, it’s Brian. This article is for informational purposes and is NOT legal advice, cool? Onto the article…

Did you hear the news? 

The Disney company lost exclusive rights to the character Winnie the Pooh in January 2022. It was on the first day of the year that British author A.A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh stories, written in 1926, entered the public domain.

That means, since then, anybody can use the well-loved character without securing Disney’s permission and paying for the privilege—which is called a licensing agreement. And folks all around the world have been lining up to capitalize on this development. 

Perhaps the most recent – and certainly most notorious – example is the horror movie, Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, in which he is portrayed as a vicious killer. 

To be clear, it is not a total free-for-all all. Disney retains the copyright and trademarks to their own version of the honey-loving, silly old bear that you know from cartoons and plush toys—you know, the chubby yellow bear with a little red shirt.

Nobody can mess with that. And Disney can, of course, continue to use Winnie the Pooh in their own future works. I’m sure they will, as he and the other characters are estimated to generate up to $6 billion every year. Also, the copyright for Tigger, Piglet, and the other friends in the Hundred Acre Wood won’t expired in 2024.

But Disney can’t restrict anyone else from using the original Winnie the Pooh character, even in non-family-friendly ways. Anybody can make movies, write stories, make apparel and toys, create illustrations, or whatever else…

In other words, sell those new works and make money.

Sounds like a lot of fuss, right? As Pooh might say: “Oh, bother.”

But as I say, billions are on the line. 

What Is Protected by Copyright

I share this story about beloved children’s characters turned killers with you because copyright doesn’t only apply to big corporations.

Any influencer, content creator, podcaster, online entrepreneur, and the like should use copyright to protect their ideas and creations. Or, as we lawyers like to say, intellectual property, also often referred to as IP.

Simply put, IP is anything you design, write, make, produce…

This could be a book, blog post, or article you’ve written. Or a course you’ve put together, a product you’ve created, or a video you have filmed – if it came out of your brain, that’s your IP.

And just like a “real” property like a home or car, your IP has value.

In fact, because what you create in your business is digital, those creations – the expressions of your original ideas – are most likely the most valuable part of your business. And, unfortunately, they are also quite easy for someone else to copy and use for their purposes… even sell them.

For example, someone could “copy and paste” a bunch of your blog posts, put them together, and sell them as a book under their own name as author. Or they could take one of your videos, upload it to YouTube, and monetize it. Or they could take your course you’ve poured your blood, sweat, and tears – and years of experience and expertise – into, take your name off and pass it off as their own creation and sell it.

Happens all the time.

That’s why using copyright to protect your online business’s assets is so important. And, yes, even if you “only” have a podcast or blog or Instagram following, you do have an online business.

How Copyright Law Works

You may be surprised to learn that you are already a copyright owner, most likely many times over.

From the moment you create your original work, and it is “fixed,” you are the author and the copyright owner. Fixed simply means you wrote a blog post and saved it… or you made a video… or whatever else.

There is no requirement to file paperwork announcing the fact. Although, as you’ll see in just a moment, there is an extra step you should take to enhance the legal protections surrounding your creations and be able to pursue legal action against anyone who violates your copyrights.

Being a copyright holder gives you exclusive rights, including the right to:

  • Reproduce the work.
  • Prepare “derivative” (related) works based on the original work.
  • Sell copies of the work.
  • Perform or display the work publicly.
  • Perform or display the work digitally.

How to Show Your Copyright

To show your copyright on these works to the world, you should include a copyright notice. You can use the little “c” in a circle or the actual word “copyright,” along with your name or the name of your company and the year the work was created.

A copyright notice like this should go on your website, ebooks, courses, or anything else. You’ve no doubt seen notices like this. Scroll to the bottom of just about any website and there it is. 

Registering Your Copyright

As I’ve said, copyright is in place once you create your original work. Nothing else is mandatory. 

However, it’s always a good idea to further protect your creations by registering your work with the government, specifically the United States Copyright Office.

Why should you take this extra step?

Copyright registration must be in place to enforce your copyright through litigation. In other words, if someone is using your IP you can sue them and seek monetary damages and repayment of your legal fees. These damages will date to when you officially registered your copyright.

That means it’s a good idea to register a copyright for your new works right after you create them so that you have this extra legal protection from day one.

If you register your copyright after you spot the infringement, you can only recover damages from after that date.

To register your copyright, there are some hoops to jump through, including completing applications, submitting a filing fee, and the like. Basically, you’ll include things like your name, the title of the work, the date it was created, and the like.

It’s important to note that everything in your application should be accurate to ensure you receive full copyright protection. Be thorough and complete.

What to Do If You Hire Someone to Do Work for You

While copyright protection is automatic for creative works you create for your business, there is something to keep in mind if you hire somebody else to create something for you. Outsourcing tasks like this requires an extra step.

For example, if you have a graphic designer make a logo for your business, following the guidelines above, they would be the copyright owner of that logo.

Unless… you have a written agreement, like a contract, that states they transfer the copyright for that creation to you. You should have agreements like this in place for any freelancers who do work for you.

If you have employees, the law is different. In this case, work they do on the job is “work for hire.” And as their boss, you already own the copyright.

What to Do If Someone Violates Your Copyright

Unfortunately, there are some bad actors out there in the world who have no problem with violating copyrights and stealing the work of others to sell on their own. 

As I mentioned, if you have registered your copyright with the Copyright Office, you can go after these folks and sue them for damages, which is essentially the money you’ve lost because of their actions. You can also recover your attorney’s fees.

Of course, lawsuits can take a lot of time and effort. 

The quick and easy way to handle copyright infringements, albeit without receiving any damages, is with a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown. This will remove the copyrighted work from the offender’s website or other platform where they are using it.

As the owner of the copyrighted content, you can go to the DMCA website and fill out the form. You can also contact the platform where the offending content is (for example, YouTube) or the web hosting company.

Of course, you do have the option of contacting the infringing party directly and asking them to stop stealing your work. Sometimes that does the trick.

How Long Copyright Lasts

According to current U.S. law, your copyrights last throughout the life of the author, plus another 70 years after their death. At that point, these works enter the public domain. This is what happened to Winnie the Pooh. 

Your Next Steps

As you can see, copyright law is on your side as an online business owner. It can provide the protection your creative works need so your venture can thrive. And the law also provides tools for going after those who would steal your hard-earned IP.

But it does take some effort on your part. Be sure to officially register your copyright to ensure you have full legal protection.