The Truth and Future of Design Copyright

There’s a lot of speculation on what is and what is to come of design copyright. How does copyright work? Why is it important? Will digital manufacturing spawn product design piracy? Should we give away our designs for free? How can we protect our creative work?  And what is the deal with big retailers stealing from independent artists and designers?

This five part article sheds some light on the truth and asks for discussion on the future of design copyright.

Part One: The Basics — Copyright Law

Now, the reason why any of this matters is because copyright is at the core of what makes creative output a viable vocation. The bottom line is money. Sure, there’s the claim to originality, the personal integrity and feelings of ownership, and the general annoyance of being copied. But those things don’t matter enough for a government to establish laws about them. Money matters.

So what are the laws on copyright? (I’m writing strictly on US copyright, by the way. Any readers from other nationalities are encouraged to provide resources in the comments.) The United States Code is a compilation of US federal laws; it has 50 titles. And Copyright is Title 17. You can find the entire publication at (Which is apparently also called Circular 92 which I think sounds very catchy.) Hear are a few of the highlights.

I’ve often heard people ask how to copyright their work. Copyright is inherently granted to any “original works of authorship” whether published or unpublished: literary, musical, theatrical, choreographic, pictoral/graphic/sculptural, audiovisual, sound-based, and architectural. Copyright does not ever protect an “idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” To get protection for those kinds of things, you have to get a patent. You can find all the info about design patents right here.

When you own a copyright, you have 6 exclusive rights. You can reproduce the work; make derivative works; distribute and sell the work; and perform/display/or transmit the work. If anyone else does any of those things to your work, that is copyright violation. (Note: there are certain limitations and scopes to those rights, like fair use and reproduction by libraries.) So if you want to protect your painting, movie, graphic design, etc you’re covered as soon as you create it. That said, many people chose to register their copyright with the government. You don’t have to, but you can only file a lawsuit against infringement if you have your copyright registered.

Copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years after the author’s death. After the author dies, copyright ownership will be passed to whomever was specified by the author.

If someone infringes on your copyright, you can take action. If your copyright is registered, you can file a lawsuit against infringement. The illegal copies of your work can be impounded. You can recover the damages caused by the violation.  And the violation can be punished as a criminal offense. If your copyright was registered before the violation occurred, you may be entitled to recover more than just the cost of damages. You may receive a recovery on costs and attorney fees and possible statutory damages.

For more information on taking control of your copyright visit thecopyrightcorner, a resource for artists and designers maintained by the School of Art, Media + Technology at Parsons The New School for Design.

Part Two: Hands Off vs Let’s Share — The Pros, Cons, and Compromises of Copyright

The purpose of copyright is to keep people from using your work. That sounds good, right? Makes people thinking twice before turning a profit on your work. But it isn’t just profit that is discouraged. Copyright keeps people from improving your work, from developing your work, from transforming your work.

Letting go of strict ownership can allow your work to grow from the efforts of others. If you believe at all in the adage that two heads are better than one, then it really doesn’t get any better than the nearly two billion heads on the internet that could potentially enhance your creative work. And that’s why we have Creative Commons.

You can determine the conditions under which your work can be used with a Creative Commons license. You can require that you are given credit in a specified way. You can require that any work based on your own must carry the same license that governs your work. You can allow or not allow derivative works. And you can specify that any use of your work be used for strictly non-commercial means.

Part Three: Catching a Thief — Copyright Infringement

Mass retailers are notorious for copyright violation. There a few different ways your original design may find itself distributed in massive quantities throughout retail chians without your previous knowledge.

In some instances, disregard for copyright is actually institutionalized. This involves designers, who are generally capable of creating their own work, being instructed to copy another work. The copy and the original are sent back and forth to a legal department until it is approved as being different enough to get away with.

More often than not, the breach is committed by the manufacturer. Manufacturers, who actually produce the design for the retailer, don’t always know and/or care about copyright laws. Sometimes they just grab something off the internet. Sometimes they even take an exclusive design given to them from one company and turn around to sell it to a different company. So, you can’t always blame the retailers for copying designs. It is simply impossible to research the origins of every single design.

And occasionally, it is just some jerk and/or moron who either blatantly or unknowingly rips you off.

There are lots of eyes out there that can spot copyright violations. You Thought We Wouldn’t Notice is a website “dedicated to pointing out those things that give you that feeling of ‘haven’t I seen that somewhere before?”

To be fair: music lovers, poor students, and totally normal people are notorious for copyright violation. Most of them pirate for personal use; others manage to make a profit. No matter what the reason or motivation, be warned that there are all kinds of government agencies, corporate associations, and professional organizations devoted to identifying and persecuting copyright criminals.

Part Four: Copyright Infringement can be a Colorful Thing — My Two Cents

Copyright infringement is a controversial topic. Copyright law is outlined such that copyright violations are pretty black and white. Yet there is still a lot of discussion, debate, and flat out disagreement when it comes to infringement. I wouldn’t call this grey area; I would call it colorful. People have different attitudes to copyright violation depending on the situation. Everyone knows you shouldn’t steal, right? But who can blame Aladdin for taking that loaf of bread? (That simile is probably just funny to me…)

Personally speaking, I find matters of copyright enforcement more infuriating than those of copyright infringement. I don’t like to see a designer get ripped off. But what actually pisses me off, are cases like the infamous RIAA case  Capitol v Thomas. And it isn’t about being anti-corporate; it’s about weighing the losses of the copyright owner against the gains of the perpetrator. The cost of taking action against every single act of copyright violation isn’t just measured in legal fees.  It propagates a society of pettiness, paranoia, and sterilization.

(Note: As with all of the articles on this blog, any views expressed are those of the individual authors and not of Ponoko. Also, that neat font at the top of the post is called Merchant Copy.)

Part Five: Hopes and Hypotheses —The Future of Copyright

What do you think the prevailing attitudes toward copyright law will be in the future? Will illegal distribution of design files give rise to Product Bay and What.3D? Will the major product design firms form a coalition to stop it? Will retailers desperately copy designers in effort to fight the demise of mass-production? Could the Creative Commons license become the dominant right of design? If any and everyone can download professional design files and have products made, will being a designer be a viable vocation? Will we be forced to abandon our reliance on copyright and focus on obtaining patents? Will patents go the way of open source?

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Can you please explain why the copyright law is called the Mickey Mouse law?

Kristen Turner

Mickey Mouse Law actually refers to the Copyright Extention Act of 1998. []

All the details can be found in that link, but basically:

Before 1998, copyright ownership lasted the life of the author plus 50 years. Disney (and Sonny Bono’s widow) were huge advocates for extending the number of years after the author’s death.

“The Act extended these terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier”

Obviously the push for this act was so that the copyright owners could continue to make money off the work even though the original author was dead.

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