Copyrights, Trademarks, and Your Animation: What You Need to KnowDenise McArthur 04.29.2015
The year was 1971 and George Harrison was on top of the cosmos. His Krishna-loving, feel-good “My Sweet Lord” was the #1 song in the UK and US—the first top hit of any post-breakup Beatle. Life was good.
Then he got sued. The lawsuit alleged that George had infringed upon the copyright of the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine.” He denied it. So began a torturous legal battle that cost George friends, relationships, a compromised reputation, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.
Five years later, the courts determined that he had “subconsciously plagiarized” the song. Finally, in 1998—27 years after the initial lawsuit—the settlement was completely concluded. Sounds like a fun way to pass three decades.
Copyright and trademark infringements can cause a world of damage. Even when unintended, a little carelessness can really come back to bite you.
That’s exactly why IdeaRocket takes great pains to ensure your animated video doesn’t trample on any copyrights or trademarks. We talked with our lawyer, Ivan Saperstein of Lane Sash & Larrabee LLP, to discuss what clients should keep in mind about copyrights when creating an animation.
Demystifying the Fair Use Myth
Maybe you’ve heard of fair use—a legal concept popularly believed to enable the use of copyrighted and trademarked material. In the uninformed imagination, fair use means you can do all sorts of things short of straight-up stealing. Dropping a few seconds of famous song into your video is fine if it’s just a few seconds, right?
The truth is much murkier than a simple right or wrong. Fair use is a legal doctrine interpreted on a case-by-case basis—not an artistic license to steal. It’s typically only invoked after you’ve already been sued.
To quickly dip our toes into the nitty-gritty of it, fair use may cover criticism, comment, news, teaching, scholarship, and research, according to the US Copyright Office. The four factors that a judge or jury will consider are:
- The purpose of the use (e.g., commercial vs. nonprofit)
- The nature of the copyrighted work (vague enough for you?)
- The amount of the work used in relation to the whole (taking a bit is better than taking a lot)
- The effect on the value of the copyrighted work
As you can see, it’s not so cut and dry. As Mr. Saperstein was quick to point out, even if you win, it’s still a losing game. “It’s not a situation you want to be in,” he says. “Even if it’s legitimately fair use, defending yourself is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. It really comes down to a practical question, rather than a strictly legal one. We can make an airtight argument, but it’s still up to the judge or jury to interpret.” Instead, it’s better to err on the side of caution when it comes to your animation—being sued is unpleasant, costly, and demanding of both time and emotion.
You Probably Don’t Realize Just How Many Things Are Copyrighted
Ever notice how you can catch Charlie Brown’s crew singing Christmas carols, but whenever it’s someone’s birthday on TV, people inexplicably belt out “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”? That’s because the rights to the more common “Happy Birthday to You,” are still claimed by Warner/Chappell Music—though it’s a matter of considerable dispute.
All right, you think, I wasn’t planning on having any birthday songs in my 60-second explainer video anyway. Who cares? In reality, lots of things are protected. Not just songs, but logos, characters, and even cliché catchphrases from movies. So if you planned to play off a well-known line like “show me the money!” or “life is like a box of chocolates,” you may want to hold off.
In fact, even this blog post is copyrighted. And we didn’t have to lift a finger to do it. That’s because all you have to do is create something to earn it’s copyright—you can even slap on a professional looking copyright notice © without getting it registered—though it’s not required to retain your rights. Actually registering your content is an excellent idea, though, as it affords you extra protections. All this to say you need to be very careful when conceiving of your animation—if anything’s a bit derivative, you may be setting yourself up for legal troubles.
Are Your Own Assets Really Your Own? The Dangers of Freelancing
Perhaps your animation isn’t using or drawing on anything but your own supply and entirely new content. You don’t need to worry about copyrights or trademarks, right? Wrong again.
As Mr. Saperstein points out, freelancing has become more popular than ever, but it’s not without certain risks. If you used an outside contractor to create your logo, branding, or other assets, you may not actually own the rights to them.
Usually when you hire someone to create something for you, all rights are transferred over to you upon completion. That’s how IdeaRocket works, and it’s how most creative professionals do business. Most,but not all. If you’re hiring freelancers, you should proactively ensure that they sign a contract transferring all copyrights to you.
Let’s say you had an independent artist write your company a catchy jingle that you’d like to use. But because you didn’t check the fine print, you failed to notice that he actually owns the copyright to it and has to approve any future uses. The same can be true for any graphic design work or characters you’ve had developed.
Even worse, maybe you do own the rights, but the work was already unwittingly infringing on another work—perhaps through a misunderstanding of fair use laws. If your jingle follows the exact melodic structure of “Happy Birthday to You,” you may be getting an angry letter from Warner/Chappell Music through no fault of your own.
We’re Here to Protect You
While these are all important considerations to keep in mind, you don’t need to get too stressed about it. At IdeaRocket, we’re hyper vigilant about these issues. So, don’t worry—we always keep a sharp eye out for potential infringements and can help you express your message without overriding anyone’s rights. Your final animation will be all your own.
Latest posts by Denise McArthur (see all)
- Tom’s Planner – An Easy-to-Use Project Planning Tool - May 18, 2015
- Translating Your Animated Videos for a Global Audience - May 8, 2015
- Copyrights, Trademarks, and Your Animation: What You Need to Know - April 29, 2015