The Power of Copyright

We are often asked about whether and when Early Stage companies should Copyright what they produce. This could be advertising, customer presentation, package design or software code – literally any creative product. Rather than take you through all the details of the Copyright law, here’s a quick story which may convince you of the value of copyrighting everything you produce, as you do it.

We always recommend you consult an experienced intellectual property attorney on any subject related to intellectual property.

The U.S. Copyright law is remarkably powerful. One reason is that it is deeply rooted in Common Law, the traditional source of “natural law” which America inherited from the English courts. Common Law is the foundation on which much of our Statutory Law is based. Here’s a great example of the power of Copyright laws in action.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. The bulk of the speech was finished the night before. It was typed onto a mimeograph stencil by Dorothy Cotton, so that copies could be printed and distributed to the press the next morning. Mimeography, by the way, was the technology standard before xerography came into wide use in the 1970s. It was basically a paper mask into which letters were “cut,” allowing ink from a drum to be deposited on paper.

Just as the copies were being prepared for distribution, King’s lawyer – Clarence B. Jones – had what he admitted was a last minute thought. While King’s speeches or sermons had never been protected in any way, Jones suddenly decided this practice should change. He went to the mimeograph machine and simply scratched “© 1963” into the stencil before the copies were printed.

This simple act has protected Dr. King’s speech for more than 50 years. With the appropriate renewals, it can protect the content of this speech and the film made of it for the benefit of Martin Luther King’s estate for Dr. King’s lifetime plus 70 years.

The “I Have a Dream” copyright was tested very quickly after the speech. Columbia Records quickly put out a recording on the theory that it was made in public and thus in the Public Domain. This term applies to creative product produced without © protection by the author or to material which has outlived its copyrighted life. For example, the song “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” is now in the Public Domain because it is past its 70 year protection limit. By contrast, the tune to “House Of The Rising Sun” has never been the subject of copyright because it is a folk song dating to the 1800s. The Animals’ performance of this piece, however, is copyrighted.

For “I Have A Dream,” however, Clarence Jones attacked the notion of Public Domain in Federal Court and was successful in defending Dr. King’s intellectual property – based on his own simple, last minute act. With a favorable decision, licensing of this speech has withstood the test of time for more than 50 years. It has been the single largest income source for the MLK Foundation.

So, always talk with your lawyer, but when in doubt, copyright! The Copyright Office, a department of the Library of Congress, provides excellent FAQs, directions for filing copyrights and advice at its website, www.copyright.gov.But as a matter of course, we generally copyright any original material we write, photos we take, etc. – including what you are reading now! (Not to worry: Under the Fair Use provision, you are free to use it as appropriate. But Fair Use is a completely different story!)

Source:Some material came from an interview of Clarence B. Jones on “Fresh Air”, NPR, January 18, 2011