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Copyright Strategies for Start-Up Companies

25 January 2019

From Trademark and Copyright Law:

As a leader of a start-up company, you are probably aware of the importance of protecting your company’s innovative products, services and technologies through patent filings.

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Most start-up companies overlook copyright issues, however, and this can create problems down the road.  In this article, we identify the most common traps that we see start-up companies fall into, and provide recommendations for how to avoid them.

Trap for the Unwary #1: Paying Someone to Create Content Does Not Mean That You Own It

One of the most common mistakes companies make in the early stages is to fail to shore up — in writing — ownership rights to content created for the company.  Many companies think that, by hiring someone to write content such as website text, software programs, or training manuals, the company automatically owns that content.  Not true!

The term “work for hire” is one of the most misunderstood terms in copyright law, and it seldom covers anyone but a true employee (i.e., someone who gets a W2 tax form from the employer, as opposed to an independent contractor).

As a general matter, an individual who creates content, by putting an original work of authorship into a tangible medium of expression, owns the copyright in that content at the moment of its creation unless (1) the individual is an employee who creates the work in the scope of his or her employment; or (2) the individual previously signed a written contract acknowledging that the work is a “work for hire” and the work is one of a few categories narrowly defined in the Copyright Act under the definition of “work for hire” (i.e., “a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas”).

Thus, very few non-employees will fall into the “work for hire” category.  It is therefore crucially important that such individuals execute written assignments so that the copyrights are transferred to the company.  To the extent that a non-employee content creator is working for the company pursuant to a written contract, that contract can impose upon the independent contractor the obligation to execute copyright assignments, and even give the company the power of attorney to execute such assignments on his or her behalf.

As copyrights can only be transferred in writing, it is important for start-up companies to obtain the necessary written assignments before its independent contractors move on or disappear.

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Copyright Registration and Notice Strategy

If your start-up company is in the business of content creation, in addition to following the guidelines above, it is important to implement a copyright registration strategy at the outset.  Copyright registrations are relatively inexpensive to obtain, and allow the company to seek statutory damages and attorneys’ fees for any infringement commencing after the registration date.

Copyright registrations are also useful because they put your competitors on notice of your intellectual property rights.  This can be valuable if you are seeking copyright protection for documents or materials that your competitors might not otherwise consider proprietary, such as customized forms or user interfaces.

You do not need to obtain a copyright registration to include a copyright notice on your materials, and it is a good idea to use such a notice wherever possible.  The proper form of the notice is the symbol © or the word “Copyright,” the year of first publication of the work, and the name of the copyright owner or an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized.

For example: © 2015 Foley Hoag LLP

You should also consider adding whatever other proprietary language may be appropriate, particularly if the distribution of the materials is restricted.

For example:  For use by customers of [company name] only.  Further copying or distribution is strictly prohibited.  For permissions, contact [legal@companyname.com].

Link to the rest at Trademark and Copyright Law

Copyright/Intellectual Property, Legal Stuff