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All you need to know about intellectual property as a freelancer

Every once in a while the question pops into one’s head ‘as a freelance writer or designer, how do you protect your work with copyrights?’ Because of the growth of freelance material over the last years, intellectual property, or sometimes referred as IP, is becoming one of the most fundamental subjects for freelancers. With the issue of intellectual property of freelancers gaining significance, freelance copyrights are what freelancers ought to be well informed about.

Broadly speaking, in the context of freelancing, IP is generally considered the work that is brought into existence by a freelancer during a freelance contract. It is important to know what constitutes an IP and what doesn’t in order to be aware of how to protect intellectual property.

What are copyrights?

We may feel like we intuitively know what copyrights are but the answer is not always easy to give once we are asked directly. Additionally, we may mistake intellectual property with copyrights.

While intellectual property refers to a broader set of things such as patents and trademarks, copyrights is a segment of this broader set of what is called intellectual property. To keep it simple, we can say that a copyright is the right to reproduce, sell, distribute, publish and reprint a given work. This right can be exercised by the creator as well as other people and organizations that creator authorizes.

What do copyrights cover?

In other words, copyrights serve intellectual property protection and they protect an original piece of work (such as writing, music or design) created by someone. Nevertheless, just because there is a creation it doesn’t mean that the creation is copyrightable. For instance a concept or an idea do not fall under the category of copyright material.

In order to qualify an original work as copyright material it has to have a ‘physical’ or digital form. We know that it sounds a little complicated but let’s take a look at some concrete examples in order to clarify the issue. Here are some examples that can be considered copyrightable:

  • freelance graphic design
  • software
  • any kind of digital or non-digital art (poetry, musical composition or lyrics, books, films etc.)
  • other virtual content (such as articles at a blog and reviews or other types of web content)

What should I know about intellectual property?

We mentioned above that intellectual property and copyrights aren’t exactly the same. For the sake of being more mindful about IP, let’s go over some points that you should know about intellectual property in general.

  • Having a form

Whether it is a song that you wrote or an illustration that you drew, an intellectual property needs to be in a substantial form. Ideas don’t count!

  • Confidentiality

Intellectual property includes other types of legal protection such as patents, trademarks and trade secrets.

  • Country specific approaches

In every country there is a similar yet distinct process to secure an intellectual property.

  • Expert support

IP and laws that protect them can be intricate depending on the country you are based in so make sure that you consult a legal professional. If things get complicated intellectual property lawyers can be of help.

  • Value of work

Intellectual property (such as designer copyrights) can give you a competitive advantage, increase the worth of what you’ve created and make your business grow.

  • Time limitations

Not all types of intellectual property protection last forever. For instance a patent secures a product for only a limited number of years.

Who owns the intellectual property of a work?

Do freelancers have copyrights? The fact of the matter is that the ownership of a copyright or an IP of a work mostly depends on two things. The first thing that determines the ownership of an original piece of work is the type of contract or agreement that binds the employer and the employee. The second thing that regulates the ownership of the IP of a work is the legal framework in which two parties are operating.

The freelance artist contract or more generally the freelance service contract that determines the overall framework of a freelance project can either state that the property is owned by the creator (Sole ownership) or it can declare that multiple parties possess the ownership of the work. (Joint ownership) This being said, we must emphasize that although it is not set in stone, in most of the cases the intellectual property is owned by the client.

What are the intellectual property regulations?

Intellectual property regulations can be classified under the legal measures that protect and secure the rights of a creator who creates an original piece of work. The IP rights contain patents, copyrights and trademarks.

Copyright regulations: Often for a limited period of time, copyrights grant the interested parties rights concerning the distribution and reproduction of the material. These regulations protect freelance artists and their copyrights in case an unauthorized person or company sells or distributes the material.

Patent regulations: Laws concerning patents are mainly at disposal of those who made a new invention and want to make sure that the invention will be certified as the property of the inventor. Like copyrights, patents have a term and they usually expire after 20 years.

Trademark regulations: As the term suggests, what is protected by trademark regulations is a trademark. This can be a logo, a signature, a phrase, word or symbol.

Copyrights are often referred to as exclusive rights that establish the creator and others authorized by the creator of an original work as the lawful owners of the intellectual property. Once an original intellectual property is protected by copyright laws, unauthorized people, companies and organizations can no longer sell, distribute, adapt or make profit from the given intellectual property without asking the permission of the original owners selling transfer of copyrights.

Owning a copyright for an original intellectual property is probably one of the smartest things any creator, in our case freelancers, can probably do. Some of the privileges of being the owner of a copyright are;

  • A public record that you own the IP
  • Presuming to own the IP after the renewal of a copyright
  • Ability to take effective legal action in case of pirating and copyright infringements
  • Being fit for statutory damages, lawyer’s costs and costs of suit in case of a court case
  • Preventing the loss of a potential profit that you can make from your IP

What are your options concerning copyrights as a freelancer?

As a freelancer, the future of your works and creations depend on your relationship with people you work with and people whose projects you are working for. Instead of passively accepting a contract that you think will be harmful for your freelance operations in the future, you can always try negotiating, expressing your needs and intentions and make sure that you and your client for the project you are taking up are on the same page.

Apart from this, you can discuss adding some clauses to your freelance service agreement that will suit your needs and protect your rights as the creator of the work. Some of the rights that come along with certain clauses can be first and second serial rights as well as one-time rights, all rights and subsidiary rights.

What are the first serial rights?

First serial rights are rights that make sure a section of a given work is published by a magazine, journal or website before publication. Having said this we should also mention that in some cases first serial rights can be specific to a certain country or region. For example, a writer can grant first serial rights to a specific magazine in Europe or Asia only.

What about the second serial rights?

The second serial rights are also known as reprint rights. Being non-exclusive rights, second serial rights are about publishing a piece of work multiple times after the initial publication. Suffice to say that the second serial rights can be given to multiple publishers.

How to protect your intellectual property

Apart from copyrighting arrangements, there are other ways that can help you protect your intellectual property. Here is some advice that you can follow to protect your intellectual property further:

  • Try avoiding joint partnership if you can
  • Get copyrights, patents or trademarks
  • Make sure you register the name of a business, domain or product
  • Secure the business arrangement through the appropriate type of agreement.
  • Based on your needs some of the available options are non-disclosure agreement, confidential disclosure agreement, proprietary information agreement and secrecy agreement

Including terms about copyrights in freelance contract

While we were discussing the options of freelancers concerning copyrights and intellectual property we underlined that one can secure their position in a freelance business agreement by adding certain clauses and terms to the freelance contract.

Terms that will clarify the boundary between you and your employer concerning the rights ownership, selling, distribution and publication will make you avoid further confusion and enable you to assess whether the faith of your original work is at your expense and if yes to what extent.

Communicating copyrights clearly

Communication to the public or communication of copyrights is a tricky subject that has great regional and national variances. Broadly speaking, we can say that this legal term signifies the border between the use of a copyright material that has legal relevance and a material that has not.

Communication to the public defines who the audience is, what is private and what is public within the context of IP regulations. After registering your copyright make sure that you understand how the issue of communication to the public works where you live. This is when consulting an intellectual property lawyer can actually be a life-saver.

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Arno Yeramyan
Arno Yeramyan is a polyglot who’s a fan of constantly learning new languages.

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