Yes, you can protect your creative work — attorney Kathryn Carrier tells you how.
Q: What is the most common legal issue you encounter with event professionals?
A: The most common issue goes to the heart of the most important part of a creative business — the creations. I find that creative individuals often just plain don't understand how to protect the fruits of their creative labor. Essentially, these creations are the intellectual property of the creator, and there are a number of steps that all business owners can take to ensure that they protect their intellectual property.
Q: What are these steps?
A: The first step is identifying your business's intellectual property. This includes your business name, logo, slogan or tagline, website, blog, marketing materials (digital and print), business methods and processes, tangible products created, customer lists, designs, schematics, time lines … and I could keep going.
You should also seek registration of your trademarks. Your business name, logo, slogan and tagline are all protectable by federal trademark registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office if they are being used in connection with goods and services sold or marketed across state lines or internationally.
It is also important that you protect your copyrights. Essentially, you have established copyright ownership of an original work as soon as that work is created and captured in a fixed, tangible medium of expression. However, as with trademarks, you must first obtain federal registration in order to proceed against copyright infringers; for copyright, this registration is with the United States Copyright Office.
Not every creation or work of art or authorship is protected by copyright. An example of this is an event design. Under the current law, copyright protection would go to a photographer who captures an image of the event design, but not to the event designer for the underlying creation. I hope that this body of law will change — perhaps I need to organize a lobbying effort!
Written information used by your business, such as copy on your website and in marketing materials, is also protected by copyright. Programs like Copyscape (www.copyscape.com) can help you find infringing material on the Internet.
All business owners should take steps to protect their trade secrets, which are essentially the confidential and proprietary information of your business. This includes business practices, processes, patterns, recipes, customer lists, manufacturing techniques, marketing strategies and other information that gives the owner of the information a competitive advantage in the marketplace by way of the confidentiality of the information.
It is important to maintain the confidentiality of those things you consider to be trade secrets of your business. This can be done by limiting access to the information to just those with a “need to know,” and also by using nondisclosure agreements with employees and independent contractors and in business dealings. Make a habit of labeling confidential information as such in the footer of documents, and consider password-protecting confidential documents.
If a former employee is using documents or language written for your business, such as your client contracts or marketing materials, you can register those documents with the U.S. Copyright Office and then take action against the former employee for copyright infringement.
Q: What about a situation where you pitch the client a great idea, only to see them ultimately use the design without hiring you?
A: You need to keep in mind that it is hard to legally prevent a prospective client from running with your concept or design. There is something to be said for leaving the prospective client intrigued and wanting more. Aim to sell yourself and your limitless creativity, rather than one specific concept or design.
Q: Planners have been threatened over the use of gold statues that alledgedly infringe on the copyrighted “Oscar” statuettes. What are some tips you can offer with respect to themed parties?
A: Well, I may not win any popularity points by saying this, but essentially if your event design makes use of a trademark-protected name, logo, slogan or tagline, or a copyright-protected work of art or authorship, you are putting yourself in danger of an infringement lawsuit. However, for other themes, you may be able to locate items that are properly licensed, “authorized” uses of the trademark or copyright-protected material, or if your event is a large one with some room in the budget, you may be able to negotiate directly with the trademark or copyright owner to enter into a specific licensing agreement allowing use of the trademark or copyright.
Q: And other hot topics?
A: Blogging and social media law are definitely hot topics. The general rule is that photos and articles are protected by copyright, so you should make a habit of asking permission of the copyright owner before using the image or copy, and always give proper credit to the copyright owner. If your blog either features advertising or is used in connection with marketing the goods or services provided by your company, your use will not likely fall under the “fair use” exception to copyright infringement, and you could be held liable for infringement.
You can be held liable for defamatory statements made via blogs, Twitter and Facebook just as you can for statements in traditional print media. Think twice before you write or post anything about a person or business that could be construed as defamatory, even if you don't mention the person or business by name.
This article discusses general legal issues of interest and is not designed to give any specific legal advice pertaining to any specific circumstances. It is important that professional legal advice be obtained before acting upon any of the information contained in this article.
Carrier & Associates 447 S. Robertson Blvd., Suite 103, Beverly Hills, CA 90211; 310/424-5585; www.carrierandassoc.com