You can turn your ideas into money. But if you don’t protect your ideas with copyrights, so can anyone
Amazing as it seems, considering how many people are now on this planet and how many have been in the
past, there is still a possibility that you will have an original thought.
This may sound facetious, and it’s not to imply that your thoughts aren’t wonderful. But to think of
something really new is a trick. If you’re lucky (or smart) enough to think of something new, then you want
to make sure that you can make money on it. That’s one reason that the copyright was invented.
You’ve seen the copyright symbol “©” on books, movies and magazines. You may have thought
securing this legal protection involved a lengthy process and a team of attorneys. But here is one of those
rare cases where the system actually works. Once you create an intellectual product, you automatically
hold the copyright.
So the minute you shoot a videotape, you own the content of that videotape (assuming you haven’t
taken your camcorder into the movies and shot the screen, like a character on Seinfeld did the
other night). If you edit lots of different shots together and add narration, then you own the copyright on
the finished show.
But you have to have a real product like a videotape or a show. You can’t copyright an idea. Which
makes sense. How could you prove that you had an idea first if you didn’t write it down? “Oh, yeah, I had
this concept about a bunch of twenty-something people sitting around talking. I think I should get half the
profits from Friends.” Don’t count on it.
To really get immersed in the information about copyright, visit the United States Copyright Office Web
What is a Copyright for?
The purpose of a copyright. to quote the U.S. Constitution, is “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.” From the U.S. Copyright Office Web site: “Copyright is a form of protection by
the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of ‘original works of authorship’
including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic and certain other intellectual works. This protection is
available to both published and unpublished works. Section 106 of the Copyright Act generally gives the
owner of copyright the exclusive rights to do and authorize others to do the following:
- to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phono records
- to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
- to distribute copies or phono records of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer
of ownership, or by rental, lease or lending;
- to perform the copyrighted work publicly; in the case of literary, musical, dramatic and
choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual
images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.”
Owning a copyright on a video means that the program is your property and you have the right to show
it, sell it or chop it up and use the pieces any way you want. It also means that if someone else uses your
property without your permission, you can have them arrested for intellectual trespassing (well, you can
sue them, which is sort of the same thing).
Whose Tape is it?
In many video businesses, the owner creates shows for his clients. He sells the idea, writes the script,
hires the talent and puts together the production schedule. Then he hires a cameraman to shoot the video
while the owner directs. If the copyright laws are to be taken at face value, the cameraman owns the
copyright to the footage he shoots. Not the owner. Not the client. If the owner wants to own the copyright,
he has to put in writing (before any video is shot) that the cameraman is creating the video as a work made
for hire. More about that in a minute.
This has been an idea that many companies have discussed with still photographers over the years. If
you set up the shoot and hire the models and pay the photographer to come and take pictures, the
photographer owns the copyright on the resulting photos. You are paying the photographer for the right to
use the photos once. Then the photographer can sell the images again to anyone who will pay for them.
For companies that hire photographers, this seems a little unfair. The company does all the prep, and
pays for props, and contacts and/or pays the people to show up and be in the pictures. Then, when they’re
done, the photographer owns the pictures. On the other hand, most freelance videographers never give
video companies a hard time, and everyone stays happy. Still, you should be aware that if you get one of
your buddies to shoot some video for you, even if he shoots it on your equipment, he will own the
You can get around this with paperwork. According to the Copyright Office: “In the case of works
made for hire, the employer, and not the employee, is presumptively considered the author. Section 101 of
the copyright statute defines a ‘work made for hire’ as:
- a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or
- a work specifically ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a
part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a
compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.”
Basically, this means that if you don’t have a written contract with your client, you own the video even
after the client pays for it, unfair as this seems. You could make the client pay for content every time he
needed more copies of the video that you created. This situation would probably make your clients very
To let the world know that you own the copyright on your video, you should label the tape and visually
record the following items on the program itself:
- the copyright symbol (the letter C in a circle), or the word “Copyright,” or the abbreviation “Copr.”;
- the year of the first publication of the work. In the case of compilations or derivative works
incorporating previously published material, the year date of the first publication of the compilation or
derivative work is sufficient.
- the name of the owner of copyright in the work, or an abbreviation by which the name can be
recognized, or a generally known alternative designation of the owner.
Since you own the copyright to your work automatically, why should you go through the process of
registration? According to the Copyright Office: “Timely registration may also provide a broader range of
remedies in an infringement suit.” Which means that if you don’t officially register before you sue
someone for copyright infringement, it limits the damages that you can collect. On the other hand,
infringement suits are rare, so be sure someone is likely to rip you off before you go through the trouble of
Here are the steps you must take to register with the Copyright Office and make your video available
through the Library of Congress:
“To register either a published or unpublished motion picture, send the following to the Copyright
- A signed application on Form PA;
- One complete copy of the motion picture being registered (there are specific deposit requirements for registration which are discussed in detail in the instructions for form PA);
- A separate written description of the contents of the motion picture; and
- A nonrefundable filing fee of $20 for each application in the form of a draft (that is, a check, money order, or bank draft) payable to: Register of Copyrights. Do not send cash. Send the application, deposit and fee in the same package to: Register of Copyrights, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20559.
To order application forms or circulars, call the Forms Hotline (202) 707-9100, 24 hours a day, and
leave a recorded request. Be sure to specify the number of forms and circulars you want.
You can call (202) 707-3000, 24 hours a day, and listen to recorded information on certain copyright
topics. To speak with an information specialist, call (202) 707-3000 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Time,
Monday through Friday, federal holidays excepted.
To download Form PA from the Internet, go to http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/forms.html. You will
need access to a laser printer. And since the forms are in the PDF format you will need to have Adobe
Acrobat Reader installed on your computer. You can download that program for free from Adobe Systems
Is your copyright good forever? No, but the difference probably won’t bother you much. Your
copyright protection lasts from the moment your create your videotape until you die plus another 50 years
after that. So stop worrying.
Now here’s a little wrinkle that many people don’t know about: Mandatory Deposit for Works
Published in the United States. See if you can figure it out.
“Requirement Under Mandatory Deposit.
“The owner of copyright or the owner of the exclusive right of publication of a motion picture published
in the United States has a legal obligation to deposit in the Library of Congress within three months of
publication in the United States one complete copy of the best edition and a description of the work.
Failure to deposit this copy after the Library demands it can result in fines and other penalties.
“Satisfying Mandatory Deposit Through Registration
“Depositing the required copy with an application and fee for copyright registration simultaneously
satisfies copyright registration and mandatory deposit requirement for the motion picture. Satisfying the
mandatory deposit requirement alone does not provide the benefits of copyright registration.”
To get more information about these matters call the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound
Division at (202) 707-5604.
If you do go through the registration process and send a copy of your video to the Library of Congress,
you’ll be in good company, since all major motion pictures do the same. It makes for quite a
“The Library of Congress is the nation’s central collection of books, recordings, photographs, maps,
audiovisual works, and other research materials. Many of the Library’s acquisitions are obtained through
copyright deposits. The material acquired by this means is critical to the Library’s recognized success in
maintaining superior and comprehensive collections.
“Motion pictures form an essential part of the Library’s holdings. As feature films, television programs,
videos, and other audiovisual media become increasingly popular as a means of communication, education,
and entertainment in our society, they also form a greater part of our historical record. The preservation
facilities and bibliographic control provided by the Library ensure that these works will be available to
A Good Deal
Copyright protection is a good deal. You are protected the minute your create your video. And if you
do go through the formal registration process, it is still fairly easy and cheap. And your work becomes part
of the Library of Congress, where historians in centuries hence can pull it off the dusty shelves and see
what life was like here in the late 20th century. So be careful. Posterity is watching. Make it good.