3 Ways Your Business Might Be Violating Copyright or Trademark Laws

You may assume you own your logo or think that photo you found online is fair game to use in your newsletter — and you may be wrong.
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Are you violating copyright laws? Think before you decorate those character-themed cupcakes. (Photo: DixieBelleCupcakeCafe/Flickr)

Intellectual property laws are a double-edged sword for businesses. They protect the ideas and creations you’ve spent time and money developing. On the other hand, it’s easy to infringe on someone else’s copyright, trademark or patent, leaving your business vulnerable to costly lawsuits.

“It’s one of the areas of the law that brushes against the lives of everyday people in a way that’s organic and natural,” said attorney Christine E. Weller, an associate at Griesing Law LLC’s Intellectual Property & Technology Practice Group in Philadelphia.

Before you stream that popular song in your bar, whip up a Spider Man- or Ariel-themed treat at your bakery or publish a photo you found on Google in your newsletter or on your website, learn some of the most common ways businesses infringe on copyrights and how to stay on the right side of the law.

Related: 6 Legal Mistakes Small Business Owners Make (and How to Avoid Them)

Mistake #1: Using unlicensed photos

New software has made it easier than ever to create a visually appealing newsletter or website. But be careful about the imagery you use, said Weller.

“Just because you find a picture online does not mean that it is free for you to use without permission. This is especially true to the extent you are using the picture in a marketing campaign or to promote your product in a commercial sense.”

There are a few ways to make sure you’re using visuals legally. Start by seeking out images in the public domain. Weller recommended looking on Wikimedia Commons, which contains many free-to-use photos and explains the licensing details below each file.

“When in doubt, there are also several low-cost or free subscription services and websites you can turn to for public domain images and art,” she said. Examples include Pixabay and Pexels.

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Paying for photos through a site like Shutterstock or iStock is one way to avoid publishing an image illegally. (Photo: RAYBON/Shutterstock)

You could also pay to use images from stock photo websites like Shutterstock and iStock Photo, which tend to have a better variety and higher quality options than you’ll find in the public domain.

Finally, if you find an image you love that isn’t licensed for reuse, reach out to the owner to request permission to use it.

“Usually when you negotiate a license, you’ll work with the owner to decide on a price, whether you can use the image once or multiple times and whether you need to ask for additional permission from the rights holder if your use changes from what they originally granted,” said Weller.

Photos are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to protected media. Music, text, logos and other creative works are also covered under intellectual property law and could put a business owner at risk of a lawsuit if used improperly.

“When in doubt, ask permission from the owner and seek a license before use,” said Weller.

Mistake #2: Inadvertently using someone else’s name or brand

Got an amazing idea for a business name, brand or product? Before launching it, make sure your great idea didn’t already occur to someone else.

christineeweller

“A little diligence on the front end saves a lot of time, money and heartache on the back end.” -Christine E Weller (Photo: Christine E Weller)

“The last thing a business owner wants is to invest time and money in promoting a business name only to find out that someone else has pre-existing rights to that name and brand, or that a competitor has a name that is too similar for comfort,” said Weller.

She tells clients to start with a Google search to see what’s out there already. “Focus on the area you’re doing business in. So if I’m working in and around Philadelphia, I might want to Google what local businesses have names and products that are similar,” said Weller.

If you have concerns, consult a lawyer who focuses on trademark law, she added. The attorney will provide guidance on choosing a name that’s legally strong and protectable.

“A little diligence on the front end saves a lot of time, money and heartache on the back end.”

Related: How to Choose the Best Restaurant Name

Mistake #3: Not owning business content

Let’s say you hired a local graphic designer to create a logo for your small business. She sent the file, you cut her a check, and now you own the work, right? Not necessarily, said Weller.

“Just because your company paid for a deliverable does not mean you own it under the eyes of the law. The default in the United States is that the person creating the copyrightable expression is the owner,” she said. In the long-run, this could cost you big bucks, especially if your business takes off.

“That graphic designer might come back and say that part of the reason you’re so successful is because she created that beautiful logo for you, so she’d like some money for that,” said Weller.

When you work with any content creator, be it a designer, a blog writer or a jingle writer, make it crystal clear who will own the work. “If it is the intention of the parties that the intellectual property will belong to the company as opposed to the individual who created it, the ownership needs to be addressed and signed off in writing by the creator,” said Weller.

Copyrights and trademarks can get complicated, so seek the advice of an attorney as you navigate the law. An up-front investment in professional guidance can save you a big headache down the road, said Weller.

And by the way, ignorance won’t get you off in the event of a claim. “Not knowing that something is subject to copyright protection is not a defense under the law.”

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