The Born Freelancer explores copyright: Part 1

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.


It’s a heart-stopping moment.  

You put your thoughts and soul into your work online, creating a project you hope will touch an audience and you reach out to share something you believe in or feel is important.

Later you find out it’s been pirated. Stolen. Put on somebody else’s website without a credit or acknowledgment or even a simple courteous “thank you.” Or it may be attributed to you but edited beyond recognition or inaccurately reproduced. This possibly malicious action could potentially cost you lost revenue and a tarnished reputation depending upon the website and the context of your work’s (mis)use.


What can you do?

Caveat: This post is not intended to be construed as specific legal advice – you’ll need to consult a copyright lawyer and/or check various legal websites for that. Nor am I going to address outdated copyright laws in general (a topic worthy of separate discussion.) This post is just meant to be a general overview of the situation as it appears to me today.

If your work was originally bought and displayed on a corporate website then you may have been induced to sell your copyright (this is never a good idea and is another topic worthy of its own future post). In which case, they own it and will no doubt instruct their team of lawyers to deal with the alleged copyright infringement.

But what if you’re just a regular freelancer and your work was originally up on your own website or on a blog or some other similar site?

Now if you don’t mind that it’s been “shared” then all is well and good. Lots of folk are happy that their work is shared online and widely reproduced and distributed beyond the confines of their original posting.


Creative Commons

Some online content creators adhere to what is known as a “Creative Commons” licensing agreement which provides a specific agreed-to framework within which online sharing can occur and still reserves certain rights for creators. If you plan to create original online content it is well worth checking out to see if it would suit your purposes.

But what if your original work is being used in some nefarious way you cannot possibly agree to under any circumstances?

You must try to enforce your copyright. Nobody else will do it for you.

Copyright is simply the legal right to copy or distribute your original creative work. There are lots of specific conditions and exceptions, of course, and to make things even more complicated each country has slightly different laws. It is well worth your time to do some research online to find out exactly what they are in your country. However, not all current copyright laws around the world are adequately keeping pace with the digital worldwide reality of the internet.

In Canada, any original work is automatically protected by Canadian copyright upon creation which is held by the work’s creator(s) unless that right has been assigned/transferred elsewhere. This protection lasts for the lifetime of the author plus fifty more years. Whether that copyright is respected by other jurisdictions remains another issue for you to research. Most countries will respect a copyright originating in Canada if they are fellow signatories to either the Berne Convention or Universal Copyright Convention. The difficulty lies in being able to prove that you created and therefore copyrighted a specific work on the date you said you did. This may become an important issue later if your case ever goes to court.


The Old Writer’s Trick

The classic writer’s copyright trick (slightly modified for the digital age) can still work just fine. Print out a copy of your online work (or burn a digital copy onto a CD or DVD) and mail it to yourself in a sealed envelope via registered mail along with a suitably worded covering letter. After it arrives, file that unopened envelope until such time (if ever) you need to produce it to prove that its content, your creation, was indeed your property on the date you claim. This is legally verified by the post office’s date stamp (which you have made sure clearly covers the sealed envelope.) Every time you make substantial changes or additions you will ideally need to redo the process as newer material will not be covered by previous mailings. Also – when you burn a CD or DVD most relevant apps will designate a “creation” date forever imprinted on the disc. This too is useful evidence of the date of creation you may need to prove later.

If you live in Canada you can also register your copyright with the Canadian Copyright Office – a very good idea IMHO – their website gives you full details as to how. In return for a one-time payment you get a copyright certificate and registration in their databank. I just looked up a project I copyrighted with them in this way many years ago. Yes, there it is, still on their database and still actively protected should I ever need to demonstrate that I had registered my copyright with them on that particular date. Many creators even outside of the USA prefer to register with the US Copyright Office for added protection. Whether it affords them any or not (having already registered, say, in Canada) is open to debate. Some guilds or unions representing creative industry personnel may also provide similar copyright registration services for their members (the CMG does not).

To indicate your date of creation for copyright purposes, most creators include a copyright notice somewhere on their work. In addition, the Universal Copyright Convention requires the use of the ubiquitous © sign, as in “Copyright © 2012 by Your Name Here, all rights reserved”.

So having registered copyright or at least having a legal way of proving it was your creation on the date you claim to have created it, how do you actually go about checking to see if you’ve been ripped-off online?


Tomorrow, the Born Freelancer discusses some ways to find out if your copyright has been violated… and what you can do if you find out that it has.

Have you ever taken steps to protect your copyright? Please share your experience or advice in the comments section below.



Posted on August 2, 2012 at 8:40 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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