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How freelancers can protect their copyright

Leon Cordier
April 26, 2022

Chances are that you are somewhat familiar with the term copyright. You probably have it tied to other concepts such as "intellectual property" or "patent". And, you probably know that it means something about protecting your ownership over the content you produce. As a freelancer, you must become more than just vaguely aware of copyright laws, because they are vital for protecting your work.

It would be impossible to cover all the ins and outs of copyright law in one article. However, what we will do is introduce you to freelance copyright ownership which will protect you and your work. We’ll take a look at what exactly “copyright” is and offer some actionable tips that you can implement as you work solo.

What does “copyright” actually mean?

Everyone has an idea of what the concept of copyright covers, but very few can list all aspects of it. Copyright is the right to sell, reproduce, publish, distribute, or print a given work. Copyrights are a part of intellectual property that are intended to secure your rights as the creator of your work.

Do freelancers have copyrights? Well, copyrights are a part of intellectual property protection rights. These protections are in place to safeguard your ownership of original creations like music, designs, or written content in either a virtual or physical form. In summary, any content that you create is actually protected by intellectual property rights. Copyright laws are essential to understanding how you can control the content you produce as well as secure your rights to them.

What should a freelancer do to protect their copyrights?

As a freelance creator, how do you protect your work with copyrights? Well, there are some actions you can take to ensure that your work will be protected. These will cover a variety of actions that will be effective for people in different lines of work. So, no matter if you are a writer or you do freelance graphic design, you’ll find something that fits your field of expertise.

License your work

Licensing your work is a great way to protect intellectual property. Licensing your work ensures that your content will be legally protected, while also informing people who interact with your content/media the limitations of what they can do with your content. It’s a great way to protect your work from plagiarism or other misappropriate uses of your work.

How do you go about licensing your created content? Well, there’s a helpful group called Creative Commons; a non-profit organization dedicated to providing creators legal protections through copyright licenses called Creative Commons licenses. A “CC” license protects your work but also allows you to select who can use it and how it can be used. For example, you may waive certain rights to allow your content to be used in non-commercial activity.

While other public licenses can protect your work, CC is a great starting option to consider, because of its vested interest in protecting creators. They offer a variety of licensing agreements that could be applied to your specific work, and their licensing agreements are internationally respected.

Limit the use of your work

The simple truth is that the more permissible you are with your work, the more likely it is to be misappropriated by others. To prevent this, you should look to restrict how others can use or replicate your work and the distributive means that you prefer. So, if you make music, stipulate that the music can only be used or streamed on certain platforms, not in every way that a client may want to.

Try to limit who can access your content and how they can do it. Make sure that you share your work securely and that you only use legitimate channels that you can control. By controlling your work and limiting its usage, you stand a better chance of securing it from potential misuse.

Draw agreements with your clients

A freelance contract is an important tool that you can use to secure your legal rights over your creations. When entering into a work agreement, make sure that you define your ownership over the content that you will create. As a default, ownership is usually given to the creator of the content, but be sure that these rights are explicitly spelled out in the service agreement to prevent any mix-ups.

This is especially true when your client may expect to have ownership over whatever the creation is in question. While you as the creator may have certain rights over your products, it is best to clearly define them with freelance service contracts. If your client requires these rights, however, you will need to sign over the rights you have as a creator by selling/transfer of copyrights.

Agree on the terms of disclosing information

An NDA, or non-disclosure agreement, is an agreement between two parties that binds them to not reveal confidential information about the other. So for example, a company might ask an independent contractor to not disclose certain financial information to outside sources that aren’t involved. This is what an NDA is for, and just as it can protect your clients, it can protect you as well.

If a client wishes to view your portfolio or creative techniques before or during a negotiation, you can also ask them to sign an NDA to protect the confidentiality of your work. Just make sure that you correctly mark out what you want to be confidential and protected, and take the necessary precautions to ensure the agreement is a legally binding contract.

Use a watermark

If you’ve been on Google Images for a while or looked at recent editions of the $20 bill, you’re probably familiar with watermarks. Watermarks are superimposed text or images that a creator places on an image or design that obstructs the view of the image. That way, it ensures that the only way to obtain a usable form of your work is through you, otherwise, the watermark stays on.

Watermarking is a great tool to use in design copyrights because of the versatility of its application. You can use it to enforce your copyrights, promote your branding, or even just to denote the stage of development it’s in. Watermarking is a simple and easy way to protect your work regardless of whichever field you are working in.

What to include in your contract to protect your copyrights

As a freelancer, a contract is one of the most important tools you can have to protect your copyrights. That’s why you should make sure that you do everything necessary to make it as strong as possible. Here are a few things you should consider when creating your contract:

  • Do you want to sell your intellectual property outright, or allow your client to use it for a given period of time?
  • If you’re handing over limited rights, are you granting serial rights (rights to the first publication in a geographic region)?
  • Are you giving reprint rights or just one-time publication rights?
  • If you’re selling the full rights to your work, do they pass to your client as soon as you’ve submitted your completed work, or only once you’ve been paid?
  • If you’re licensing the rights, when will ownership revert back to you?
  • Which files will your client have rights to; all working files, or just final versions?
  • Do you have the right to display your work in a portfolio?

These are among the most important issues that you have to settle before you can say you have a contract ready.

What to do if your intellectual property is stolen

Unfortunately, intellectual property theft is so common that when it comes to freelance creations, you must plan for it happening.  Chances are, if you have stayed in the business long enough, you’ll probably have to deal with this. That means taking the steps needed to protect yourself, like consulting intellectual property lawyers.

When you’re faced with intellectual property theft, it’s best to start dealing with it calmly before going for the nuclear approach. You can find and contact the person who is misusing your property and see if you can politely convince them to cease using your product. If this person is a former client, you can remind the mutually binding agreement you both signed as leverage to insist they stop. If they refuse to stop using your property, even after a peaceful approach, it might be the time to proceed with possible legal actions to enforce your rights.

Of course, we wish you a career where you never run into these problems. Ruul constantly engineers solutions to make work easier for solo professionals. If you want to start protecting your copyright ownership, you might benefit from Ruul's free Service Agreement Generator or NDA Generator to draw agreements with your clients and secure your work.


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