Let's start with a few questions:
1.How much do you need to know about copyright?
2.Should you copyright your work product?
3.What if you unintentionally infringe on someone else's copyright?
4.Can you buy insurance to protect you from claims that you infringed on a copyright?
5.What the heck is copyright, anyway?
How Much Do I Need to Know?To answer the first question, if you are a "knowledge worker" (i.e. do you use other's knowledge in the course of your work) you do need to know the basics. As they remind us in year 1 of law school, ignorance of the law is no excuse. That maxim applies to all of us, not just lawyers.
What Is Copyright, Anyway?
To skip to the last question, copyright is a system of laws that gives the creator of literary, artistic, musical, dramatic or other intellectual works, protection against unauthorized use. The laws are found in title 17 of the U.S. Code (our Federal law, as opposed to an individual state's law.)
Should I Copyright My Work Product? What If I Violate Someone Else's Copyrights?
You can easily gain a better understanding of the possible answers to these questions. Learning the basics of copyright law is not difficult. It's the application to particular situations that gets tricky. And depending on the particular type of work you engage in, acquiring insurance against claims that you infringed on someone's copyright can be difficult.
Resources for Understanding
Whether you are trying to avoid being sued for copyright infringement, or are wondering whether to copyright your own material, here are the resources you need to understand the basics of copyright protection:
* Who Can Claim Copyright?
* What Works Are Protected?
* What Is Not Protected By Copyright?
* How To Put a Copyright Notice on Your Work
* What "Registering" a Copyright Means, and Whether You Need To Register
If you want to see the actual law, askSam provides a searchable version of the copyright laws here. Chapter 1, section 107 explains what "fair use" means, and describes some of the situations where you are allowed to reproduce copyrighted works without it being considered infringement.
Chapter 5 talks about infringement. Suffice it to say that copyright infringement is illegal and you don't want to be accused of it, because it will cost you a lot of money to defend yourself whether you actually infringed or not. Alice Marshall's Presto Vivace blog recently reprinted (with the author's permission) a great article on IP (intellectual property) laws including copyright, by an attorney with a lot of experience in this area.
Another attorney with easy to understand information about copyright issues is Carolyn E. Wright, who goes by the moniker "Photo Attorney." (That's the name of her blog, too.) She takes the original content creator's perspective (i.e., the photographers') about copyright infringement. Her article, Breach of Contract Claim for Copyright Infringement, is enlightening.
Insurance Against Copyright Infringement Claims
The answer to question #4 above, "can you buy insurance to protect you from claims that you infringed on a copyright," is probably the most complicated. I won't insult your intelligence by giving you an easy answer, because there isn't one. A standard commercial general liability policy contains some coverage for claims of unintentional copyright infringement, but the infringement must be in an advertisement, and there are usually exclusions applicable to insureds who are in media and internet businesses. A "professional liability" or "errors and omissions" policy can contain some copyright coverage, but it is generally not standard, and it can be prohibitively expensive for a small business owner. Coverage for copyright claims and other intellectual property issues is specialized, and the price for and scope of coverage depends on many factors, such as the type of business, the insured's experience, and the insured's risk management practices.
Do not take for granted that your business insurance policy gives you coverage. If you aren't sure, get in touch with your insurance advisor. If they can't explain, to your satisfaction, whether you have coverage for typical copyright claims affecting your business, it may be time to get a new insurance advisor. Your advisor, whether your agent, attorney, or risk manager, should be able to explain whether your particular policy contains copyright coverage, and to what extent. They won't be able to tell you whether a specific claim will be decided in your favor or not, but they should be able to tell you whether your policy would pay the costs to defend you against a typical claim.
Finally, some other resources concerning copyright, especially as it pertains to bloggers, can be found at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF.) They have created a "Legal Guide for Bloggers" covering topics such as defamation and copyright.
Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that offers flexible copyright licenses for creative works. You have probably seen the "CC" copyright on webcontent, such as this. A Creative Commons license works in addition to regular copyright, allowing for a different range of uses of the artist's work. Their FAQ page explains how.
Bottom line, a little bit of knowledge about copyright can go a long way towards minimizing your risks of doing business in this information-saturated digital age.