An overhead shot of a man drawing on an electronic tablet and looking at the drawing on a large computer monitor. The man has brown curly hair and a beard, and he wears a chambray shirt and glasses. He has several tattoos on his right arm. The drawing on the screen is a set of two logos, each showing a gray silhouette of a woman in a yoga pose in front of a pair of leaves.
There are a number of steps you can take to protect your artistic creations, including registration of your intellectual property and documentation of your creative works. — Getty Images/Pekic

Intellectual property (IP) is an important consideration for any entrepreneur, especially independent artists and creators. This group often faces unique challenges when it comes to ensuring their IP and original works are protected from theft and imitation.

Common hurdles artists and creators face when protecting their IP

Peggy Johnson, an arts advocate and Co-Chair of the Entertainment, Arts, and Sports Committee of the United States Intellectual Property Alliance (USIPA), says the biggest hurdle artists and creators face in protecting their IP is brand and copyright infringement, specifically as it relates to protecting who owns what of the work created.

In addition to copyright infringement, artists and creators may have their brand’s name, image, and likeness used without permission.

Some of the other common hurdles artists face when protecting their IP include:

  • Proving who owns the work: Having a clear answer on who owns art is one of the biggest hurdles in artistic IP protection. “Artists may have disputes with others on who actually owns the copyright and publishing rights of the work created,” Johnson said.
  • Having proper documentation: Without documents, emails, or certificates, there’s no way for artists to prove they own IP they’ve copyrighted or patented. “Memories can become unclear as to who owns what, what was agreed to, and why,” Johnson said.
  • Navigating online use: According to Johnson, “artists and creators fear putting their work online as many times pieces of their work are stolen either by other artists — or used in podcasts, marketing campaigns, and other forms of entertainment without their permission.” Online use has a slew of other laws and regulations, which is why enlisting knowledgeable legal counsel is helpful in online IP infringement disputes.

[Read more: Can an Employee Own Intellectual Property?]

How to identify and protect your IP

Register your work

The best way to protect your intellectual property is to register it through the U.S. Copyright Office. Doing so will ensure your creations have legal protection in cases of duplication, piracy, and infringement.

Find good legal counsel

Legal counsel doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, especially if you’re a startup or solopreneur needing to protect your IP.

Having friends and colleagues that are knowledgeable in IP and copyright law is very valuable and needed for guidance and protection.

Peggy Johnson, Co-Chair of USIPA Entertainment, Arts, and Sports Committee

“If [you’re] just starting out, counsel can be an up-and-coming IP attorney who is passionate about protecting the rights of creators or seasoned attorneys who do pro bono work,” Johnson said.

For businesses with extensive IP protection needs, a complex project, or organizations with a larger budget, Johnson says to consider “a well-respected attorney and firm having an excellent reputation and success in litigation and contract law.”

[Read more: Tips for Protecting Your Startup’s Intellectual Property]

Educate yourself on IP protection

Education is a vital part of protecting IP, as the law and industry regulations are constantly evolving. Business owners, creators, and artists can find a wealth of information about protecting their IP online, beginning with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) website.

Keep organized and thorough documentation of all your works and IP

If you choose to copyright, patent, or trademark any of your creations, keep and organize any documentation you receive and store it in a safe place.

“When someone has stolen something from you, emotions will become heated,” Johnson said. “It’s a good idea to have all documentation and paperwork ready for next steps in protecting and bringing your case — whether in negotiations, arbitration, or in a court of law.”

Addressing an IP infringement

If you’ve discovered someone has infringed on your IP, the first step is simply asking the infringer to stop using your IP. However, that may not be enough to solve the problem.

If a request is ignored, creators can turn to a legal expert for the best course of action, such as sending an official cease-and-desist letter that includes information about the work that has been infringed, the type of infringement, and the action you’re requesting them to take.

Johnson advised having a clear paper trail — especially if you’re planning to pursue legal action.

“I recommend gathering all information from copyright and publishing documentation, contracts, emails, text messages, and other important information, and seek[ing] legal counsel,” she said.

If the infringing party is receptive to a cease-and-desist, you may be able to avoid further legal action. But if not, you may need to consider filing a case in small claims court or higher, depending on the severity of the infringement.

“Having friends and colleagues that are knowledgeable in IP and copyright law is very valuable and needed for guidance and protection,” Johnson told CO—.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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