As a small business owner, you’d never steal another business’s material goods — but do you know enough about copyright law to make sure you’re not misusing a business’s intellectual property? You can rest easy about your company’s logo, website content, and use of music as long as you pay attention to the basics of copyright.
What’s Copyright, and How Does It Work?
Whether you’re dealing with a poem, song, computer program, or painting, creative works in Canada are protected by copyright laws, whether they’re worth a fortune or haven’t earned a penny.
Copyright just means the right to copy an original work. Copyright laws protect creators and encourage creativity in the arts and sciences. These laws cover artistic, dramatic, literary, and musical works, plus sound recordings, individual performances, and computer programs, typically for 50 years.
As a small business owner, you’re not allowed to copy anyone’s work without permission, but you may be able to license its use.
Copyright Concerns for Small Business Owners
If you want to use a copyrighted work in your business, you can approach the copyright owner, who may also be the creator, to request an assignment or license of the work. If the copyright holder assigns the work to you, you own all or part of the copyright for an agreed-upon period of time. This means you can use the copyrighted work during that time and for the purposes agreed to, even if the copyright holder still owns the copyright. The Canadian Intellectual Property Office lets you register your licence or assignment for a small fee. You’re likely to pay a larger fee for the right to use the copyrighted work.
Using Copyrighted Photos
Maybe you spot a stunning photo of your product on the internet, or maybe you find a how-to video by someone else that perfectly illustrates how to use your product. In either case, you need to find out who owns the copyright and make a deal to acquire or license the work. You can sometimes license Creative Commons photos for free as long as you attribute the work to the photographer. Take photos yourself, or pay a local photographer to take the photos you need, and then strike a deal about who owns the photo rights.
Copyrighted Written Content for Your Website
The easiest way to fill your website with written content that doesn’t come with copyright issues is to write it yourself or hire a talented professional. Beware of copying phrases from other sites, since plagiarism checkers abound and are likely to pick up the matching material.
Copyright law in Canada allows you to quote from material you didn’t write as long as you give proper attribution. In addition, you can discuss news events and publicly available research. The public domain is full of documents you can use without paying, such as classic texts. When hiring a professional writer, make sure you agree on who gets the byline and whether the writer can add the material to his or her professional portfolio, since this may undercut any ghostwriting.
Playing Copyrighted Music in Your Retail or Food Service Establishment
If you own a shop or restaurant, you know playing the right kind of music can make your customers relaxed and ready to spend money. But you can’t just plug your iPhone into your speaker system and start playing a playlist at random, since that’s a clear violation of Canadian copyright law. Fortunately, the solution is simple. A low-cost license with SOCAN gives you access to almost any type of music. For a small annual fee, you get the right to play copyrighted music in public, with that fee distributed fairly among music creators all around the world. Now that’s a win-win for the creators, your customers, and you.
Is Your Company’s Logo Covered by Copyright?
So what about your business logo, the symbol you use to represent your company, product, or brand? Is it covered by copyright, and what can you do to protect it?
Because a logo is a design element, it’s typically protected by a trademark rather than copyright, and you do want to protect it. Imagine if someone else, such as a competitor or prankster, uses your logo in a way that puts your company in a bad light. The damage to your company’s reputation may be permanent, even if the misuse becomes widely known. Before making your logo public, contact the Canadian Intellectual Property Office to trademark it right away. To make sure you have the right to do so, make sure you pay the logo’s designer and have the full rights to use it.
Just as you want others to respect the integrity of anything your business creates, respecting Canadian copyright laws is essential. Licensing the use of already-existing works or hiring someone else to create works for you are good ways to use copyrighted works in your business, as is creating new material yourself, to which you automatically own the copyright. Licensing copyrighted material is easy through professional organizations, and paying creators for their work allows you free use.