Copyright Basics for Graphic Designers

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Knowing your rights as a graphic designer when it comes to copyright laws is imperative. Not only does it protect you and your designs, but it also protects creativity for all artists.

As a basic review of what copyright is and what it protects, we pulled this excerpt from HOW Design University’s Intellectual Property Law course. If you haven’t study intellectual property law in a while and need a refresher, enroll in this course because it provides you with all the information you need to protect yourself and your designs legally. In the course, you’ll learn about the topics of copyright, trademark, design patents, privacy and publicity, and trade secrets.

Image provided by shutterstock

Image provided by shutterstock

Copyright: The Definition from the U.S. Constitution

The Constitutional basis for the Copyright Law is U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8:

The Congress shall have Power to … promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors, and Inventors the exclusive right to their respective Writings and Discoveries . . . .

The Copyright Law grants intellectual property rights in particular expressions of ideas. The federal Copyright Law preempts all attempts by states to regulate the same rights. The word “writings” has been interpreted to include, among other things: pictorial, graphic and sculptural works; certain architectural works; and compilations of works.

What is Covered by Copyright:

To be protected by copyright, a design must be “original,” that is, not copied from another source. In theory, two identical designs could be copyrighted by different owners if they coincidentally were created independently from each other.

In addition, the design must not be so elementary that it lacks sufficient creativity to be copyrightable. Examples of this would be simple geometric shapes.

Finally, the design must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. That is, it must be written down on paper, or put into a computer’s memory, or recorded in a visual medium such as a DVD, tape or film.

The software that creates a font is protected by copyright, so you should get a license to use someone else’s font-generating software. However, the U.S. Copyright Office refuses registration for the artistic design of font itself (in other words, a typeface); however, most other countries recognize property rights in typeface design.

A computer icon would be copyrightable as a graphic work.

What is NOT Covered by Copyright Law:

Copyright does not protect an idea in itself. For example, the idea of drawing a fish flying through the air would not be protected. A particular drawing of a particular fish flying through the air would be protected.

Familiar shapes or designs, and mere variations of typographical ornamentation, lettering, or coloring, are not copyrightable.

A useful article having an intrinsic utilitarian function, such as clothing, dinnerware or an ornamental wheel cover on a vehicle, cannot be copyrighted. However, any pictorial, graphic or sculptural aspect that can be identified separately from the utilitarian aspect of the article — either physically or conceptually — may be copyrightable. For example, a carving on the back of a chair or floral leaf design on a dress could be protected by copyright, but the design of the chair or the silhouette of the dress itself could not. A drawing or photograph of an automobile would be copyrightable, but not the automobile. One exception applies to building designs: the plans or drawings of a building are copyrightable and so is the building itself if it was construed after 2002.

Although the Copyright Office generally refuses registration for screen formats per se, it regards a registration of a computer program as including the screen display.

Find out how the intellectual property rights differ from each other and from the related rights of privacy and publicity, trade dress, domain names and trade secrets when you in enroll in the Intellectual Property Law course. You also will be given practical tips on how you can protect yourself when working for others.