When it comes to photos and copyrights, it’s always good to get the facts first.

The power of copyright law was first granted to printers alongside the invention of the printing press. Now, copyright covers a multitude of media, printed or not. Copyright law holds massive power and is important to be familiar with, especially for professionals in industries based on creative endeavors. But understanding the intricacies of copyright regulations can be as daunting as earning a law degree. So let’s make it simple…

What is Copyright?

Copyright gives one the exclusive right to control how his or her creative work is exploited and reproduced. Copyright protects any kind of written work, artwork (including illustrations), photographs and graphic design.

What is Protected by Copyright?

A design must be “original” or not copied from another source to be protected. But theoretically, two identical designs could be copyrighted by different owners if they were coincidentally created independently from each other!

To be protected by copyright, the original design must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Examples of this are words on paper, items on a computer’s memory, or visuals recorded in media such as DVD, tape or film. Software that creates fonts is also protected by copyright, which is why you need a license to use someone else’s font-generating software. However, the U.S. Copyright Office refuses registration for the artistic design of a font itself (i.e. a typeface).

What is NOT Protected?

Though an expression of an idea is covered, the idea is not. For example, the idea of drawing a honeycomb on a company logo is not protected. But the particular design of a honeycomb as part of that logo is protected. And as tempting as it would be, you can’t protect a word such as, “cray-cray” or “woo-hoo” and stop people from saying it forever. That would be just ridiculous. You can, however, put a trademark on a word, which stops others from using that word commercially, even if it’s something really common, or really silly.

Copyright Versus Trademark

What’s the difference between these two? Copyrighting is simply the act of using the trademarked item in written text to market, advertise, or convey a viewpoint and citing that text as your own. Trademarking is a means of identification to distinguish a name, symbol, figure, or word as unique to that merchant or manufacturer. “West Chicago Printing Company” as a company name would be covered under copyright, but West Chicago Printing’s Logo is covered with a trademark. Note that even if something is trademarked, it can still be used in a design or written work so long as it isn’t manufactured under that name.

Here’s a list to keep in mind what is not copyrightable, but can be trademarked:




Measurement charts


Simple geometric shapes


Variations of lettering or coloring

Trademarking phrases is nothing new: Have you heard of the Happy Birthday snafu? Warner/Chappell Music claims to own the copyright to the song, giving them the right to charge a $150,000 fine to those who perform it publicly and fail to pay a fee to the music group. While the company doesn’t actually come after private individuals for singing the song to their 5-year-olds, it technically could. And it does demand money anytime the song is sung on a television show or movie.

Another famous trademark case is that of Michael Buffer, who currently makes more money from his phrase “Let’s get ready to rumble” than he does from actually announcing boxers and letting them know that there will be rumbling. He’s reportedly made $400 million by licensing his phrase to movies, commercials, video games and such. To read about more ridiculous trademarks, visit http://www.cracked.com/article_20066_5-everyday-things-you-wont-believe-are-copyrighted.html.

Whether you are looking to use information legally and respectfully or looking to protect the content of your own creation, get the facts first, and happy copyrighting!

For more information, visit the U.S. Copyright Office at http://www.copyright.gov/