Common Copyright Concerns for Small Businesses in Minnesota

“Copyright” is a word lots of people know, but lots of people also don’t fully understand. Copyright law is full of interesting nuances and niches (well, interesting to copyright lawyers anyway) but there are some basic concepts in the law that could be of concern to any business owner. Things like:

  • What does copyright apply to?
  • How do I get a copyright?
  • What do I do if someone infringes my copyright?
  • Can I copy something off the internet? And what might happen if I do?

What Does Copyright Cover and How Do I Get It?

According to the U.S. Library of Congress, “Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” Copyright protects both published and unpublished works. The most common examples of copyrightable works include literary works (books, short stories, articles and the like), dramatic (plays, TV shows, and movies), musical (sheet music and lyrics as well as recordings of songs), and artistic (sculpture, paintings, photographs, etc.) expressions. Computer software and architecture may also be copyrighted. The goal of copyright protection is to safeguard the author’s right to decide when or if a work is published, how it’s distributed or copied, and whether someone can use it to create a derivative work.

Copyright protection begins the moment you create the work. But having a copyright doesn’t mean you can protect it. You can’t enforce a copyright in court until it is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. If you wait to register until after someone infringes, you’ll be able to take the infringer to court but will lose the right to some remedies. For instance, if you get a timely registration the Copyright Act may allow you to recover up to $150,000 in statutory damages for infringement. If you don’t register before the infringement, in most cases statutory damages won’t be available to you and you’ll have to prove how much the infringement cost you or how much it profited the infringer — and that can often be difficult. So while there is a cost to registration, it is something worth considering.

Steps to Take if Copyright Infringement Occurs

If you discover someone has copied your work, you should consult with an intellectual property lawyer to decide how to respond. In some cases, the infringement might have been an innocent mistake that can be fixed with a letter. But if the infringement has hurt your business, or if the infringer insists on continuing to infringe, you may need to bring them to court (after you make sure your copyright is registered, of course). A federal court can order the infringer to stop using your work and enter judgment requiring them to pay statutory or actual damages.

Can I Use This Great Picture I Found On the Internet?


Well, technically the answer is “probably no.” You can use it if you get permission in writing from the copyright owner — usually in exchange for a payment. Or some websites have images that they expressly make available for anyone to use. Even then, however, be sure to look closely at the terms of use. Often the images are only available for non-commercial or non-profit use; if you want to use the image for your business, you still have to pay for it.

If you do use someone else’s work without permission, you could find yourself on the receiving end of a federal lawsuit. At that point, it’s a good idea to contact an intellectual property attorney who can help assess the risk you face and perhaps negotiate a resolution.


Learn more about how to protect your original works by calling Rubric Legal LLC today at (612) 465-0074 to discuss your situation with a friendly Minneapolis intellectual property attorney.

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