Thursday, November 3, 2011

The importance of registering images for copyright...but when and how?

How important is it to register images while they are still being formed into collections and manipulated into a variety of product designs and formats?  This question came up during a discussion in one of my groups and it seemed like a great topic to explore and repost.

While in theory, it is good practice to register art before sending it to anyone to review, I find that to be virtually impossible with so much of these “hurry-up-we-need-it-tomorrow” requests being made more regularly than not. I race to get something completed and am then sent spinning in another direction by another similar request. The only way to get things registered in a hurry as an unpublished work would be then to just throw everything together in a group and call it a "collection".

But is that truly going to protect you against a submission being used as "inspiration", derivative or a downright ripoff?
When an artist registers groups of work as collections, it is disadvantageous to just glob a bunch of unrelated artwork together to register an unpublished “collection”….especially if the next registration contains additional related images or derivatives that are part of a collection. For example, you don’t want to register Easter rabbits, snowmen and Seashore/Nautical in one registration as a “collection” of unpublished work. If you ever have to use that registration in court, a judge may not see that registration as a true collection and damage may be significantly reduced.

So if I’m just starting to work on a snowman collection, I will wait until I get the collection into a more complete state before finalizing the online registration pages. I may be sending individual snowmen to one manufacturer for mugs, ornaments or floormats first but I try to wait until the grouping at least looks like a cohesive collection. Otherwise, I’ll be sending off designs as soon as I get them completed....then using the same basic images in surface design format or as giftbags and have to include those images in another registration just a couple weeks or a month later. And, since EVERYTHING is always “hurry up and wait”, if 6-8 weeks later the first company I send off to asks for changes or decides they want snowmen with birds… now I have to create the birds, add them to the snowmen and do yet another registration. That’s impossible to keep track of. Or, at least it is for me.

However, one suggestion is to always include preliminary sketches and ALL versions/variations/derivatives of your work, from individual images/icons to complex scenes and surface design....and include them with your unpublished collection when you register. That “trail” shows that the designs originate with the creator instead of just kind of “appearing” as finished images on a product. I can almost guarantee that anyone who steals art (or uses it as obvious inspiration) isn’t going to do that prior to their rush to get product manufactured and shipped....especially since they won't have created  early sketches and concepts.  And, even if the artist had initially sent them sketches, they won’t think of it PLUS they won’t want to spend the $ registering each published image once it is on a product and shipped to be sold…IF they even know (or bother) to register the designs at all.

The best way to ensure your work is being submitted to reliable sources is to request that party sign a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement.  Or, if that seems too off-putting, make sure you at least always follow up all verbal conversations with a written summary that is sent to the other party via email, fax or written letter.  Then, in case of a problem later on, you will have a time stamp on your submission along with the statement that the work you are submitting is your property and is being submitted for consideration in good faith. 

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be considered legal advice.  Consult with an intellectual properties (IP) attorney for more information on copyright and/or help or if you discover an infringement.