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A copyright protects an original work created by an individual or entity and prevents it from being reproduced or distributed without the copyright holder’s permission. — Getty Images/Moyo Studio

As businesses increasingly rely on digital assets, understanding the nuances of copyright law is essential to protecting a company’s intellectual property. From proprietary data to creative content, these digital assets are not only valuable, but they are vulnerable to misuse and theft. However, businesses that understand what copyright is, what it covers, and how to use it effectively to protect digital assets can ensure that their intellectual property remains protected.

What are digital assets?

Digital assets refer to identifiable property that is developed and saved in a digital environment and possesses or delivers some form of value to its owner — be it financial or of an intangible value. These assets can include images, documents, audio files, illustrations, videos, data, and written content, among others.

As technology progresses, the concept of owning digital assets is shifting, as innovations like cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) reshape our understanding of what constitutes a digital asset.

[Read more: How to Protect Your IP: A Guide for Artists and Creators]

What is a copyright?

Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects original works independently created by humans. Original works include literary, artistic, or other intellectually created assets like illustrations, computer programs, audio recordings, online posts, and paintings.

As opposed to a trademark, which protects the use of a design, word, or phrase that differentiates your products or services from others and signifies their origin, a copyright prevents these works from being reproduced, performed, or distributed without the copyright holder’s permission. To copyright a work, it must be fixed, or tangibly captured in a way that can be seen, copied, or communicated for more than just a brief period, such as being written down.

[Read more: What Happens If Someone Violates Your Copyright?]

Though copyright protects many assets, not all qualify.

What digital assets can you copyright?

To copyright a digital asset, the work must be original, real — recorded on a medium that can include digital format, canvas, paper, or film — and it should provide value. The following digital assets, among others, can be copyrighted:

  • Digitally recorded music, sounds, spoken words, or videos.
  • Computer software programs.
  • Websites and accompanying content.
  • Literary works such as books, reports, speeches, poetry, song lyrics, news articles, blogs, emails, and compilations.
  • Architectural works.
  • Documents and images.
  • Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.

While the original author who finalizes the work is typically the owner of the copyright, copyright law also permits companies to acquire ownership through "works made for hire." In this arrangement, the employer owns the content produced by an employee within their job scope. Additionally, companies can gain copyright through commissioned works created by independent contractors.

Another situation where ownership may be questioned is when purchasing NFTs. As copyright law continues to adapt to new technologies, it may surprise purchasers of non-fungible tokens to learn the extent of their ownership.

Buying an NFT essentially grants a digital token that represents ownership of an item or a part of it but not the intellectual property rights associated with the item. The original creator retains the copyright and any licenses, even after the sale of the NFT. Therefore, while you might be allowed a personal license to use the NFT for noncommercial purposes, like using it as a profile picture online, commercial use is typically not permitted.

Which digital assets do not qualify for copyright?

Though copyright protects many assets, not all qualify. These exclusions include abstract concepts such as ideas; systems; technical or scientific methods, processes, or principles; artistic creations not permanently captured or recorded; commonly known information, symbols, or designs; nonrecorded choreographic work; fashion; basic alterations in font style, lettering, or color; brief elements like titles, names, and slogans; and simple lists or recipes without literary expression.

However, you can protect many of these excluded assets in other ways, such as via trademark or patent protection.

How to protect your digital assets

While copyright exists once the original work has been fixed by the creator, enforcing the exclusive rights of copyright via legal action requires you to register the asset. To register, you must fill out an application online or via mail, pay a fee, and provide copies of the work that you are registering.

Prompt registration is crucial. If you face a copyright infringement lawsuit, registering your copyright within three months of publication or before any infringement happens enables you to claim statutory damages and legal fees, sparing you from having to prove your financial loss or the infringer’s gain.

Should you find your assets have been stolen, inform the person or entity immediately of their copyright violation and seek advice from an intellectual property attorney as to how you should proceed. Keep documented proof to support the claim in the event it's needed later.

[Read more: What Is Fair Use? And How It Impacts What Copyrighted Materials Your Business Can Use]

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