In February 2020, Redditor Matt Query posted a short story, “My Wife and I Bought a Ranch” to Reddit’s r/NoSleep forum, drawing a lot of attention from horror enthusiasts. A bidding war over the rights to the story began within months – ending with Netflix getting the story for 7 figures. For Query, posting his story on Reddit (for free) got him exposure, but it was the smart usage of digital property rights (IP) that landed him a million-dollar deal.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the most common forms of IP writers can leverage to get maximum value out of their creative works. We’ll also explain how to use IP to protect viral online content from being mis-used by others.
Most Relevant Types of Digital Intellectual Property Rights for Writers
The most relevant forms of IP for writers are copyrights and trademarks. Copyright protections arise from the creation of an original work (like a short story). Trademarks distinguish your brand in the marketplace (like a logo).
Copyrights provide writers the exclusive right to publish, reproduce, adapt, and share their original works with the public. Copyright protections are automatic (whether a work is registered or not). They last for the life of the creator, plus 70 years thereafter. Although copyright protections are automatic, there are advantages to registering original works with the U.S. Copyright Office. By registering your works, you can secure statutory damages and attorney’s fees if you have to sue someone who infringes your copyright. Registration also puts others on notice that you’re ready to enforce your IP rights if necessary.
A trademark distinguishes your brand, products, and services in the marketplace – enabling consumers to identify your creations from others. Trademarks can apply to a wide range of designs, from logos and taglines to your domain name. Like copyrights, trademarks do not have to be registered to avail yourself of legal protections. Yet it’s still beneficial to register a trademark so it can be listed in the USPTO database.
How to Protect Your IP When Your Content Goes Viral
You can leverage viral content into a profitable business opportunity with the right preparation. Since it can be difficult to determine which content may go viral (or when) it’s best to treat all of your creative works as if they could potentially gain overnight popularity. With a few simple steps, you can ensure you receive proper credit for your work even when it spreads like wildfire.
One way to protect your work is by branding your content and embedding trademarks within the content itself (so you can always be identified as the source no matter how much it’s shared). Renowned writer and social researcher Brené Brown’s “Dare To Lead” trademark slogan is featured throughout her blogs and website, making it easy to associate Brown with the content she creates. You can also register your content with the U.S. Copyright Office to put others on notice that you will enforce your IP rights.
Additionally, it is important to ensure you are respecting the IP rights of others in any content you create. If you use someone else’s creative works without permission, and the content goes viral, there’s a greater likelihood the creator will notice (and possibly sue you to enforce their IP rights). One such example of viral content turning into an IP lawsuit is the case of Warner Brothers using the popular Keyboard Cat meme in their Scribblenauts games. The creator of Keyboard Cat, Charles Schmidt sued Warner Brothers for copyright and trademark infringement, explaining that Warner Brothers’ commercial use of the meme, without permission or payment warranted legal action, “especially considering too that [Warner Brothers] would be the first to file lawsuits against people who misappropriate their copyrights and trademarks.”
Commissioned Projects – Who Really Owns the Work?
Most IP rights are automatically conferred upon the content creator however the employer/employee relationship is one situation where the creator may not own the IP rights. If an employer pays you to write content for them, they will likely own the rights to the content – not you. IP ownership can be established by contract, though, so you should always ensure you are clear on who owns the copyright or trademark if you are writing content for a third party.
It is also possible for more than one creator to share joint ownership over a project. If you work with other creators (whether they are writers, illustrators, or other artists) each creator retains ownership over their contribution to the work. If you work with an illustrator on a children’s book, for instance, you will need to get permission from the illustrator before you can reproduce or publish their work.
IP Rules for Popular Online Platforms
In addition to educating yourself on intellectual property rights and rules in general, each platform enforces their own IP rules. Some platforms outline their IP policies in their Terms of Service, while others have specific IP policies.
Here are links to IP policies for several major writing and social media platforms:
Facebook: Intellectual Property Policy
Reddit: Reddit User Agreement – Content
Medium: Medium Terms of Service
Tumblr: Tumblr Terms of Service
It’s important to pay attention to a platform’s IP policies because some will take ownership of content on their website. Ensure you are merely granting a platform “non-exclusive” permission to use your content – most platforms like Facebook, Reddit, Medium, Tumblr, and Twitter use non-exclusive licenses. This enables the platform to host your content without owning the IP rights to your creative works. The popular platform, TikTok, on the other hand utilizes an incredibly broad license, giving them more rights than most other social media companies to use the content posted on their platform any way they see fit (including for commercial purposes).
Further Reading on Digital Property Rights
This is part 4 of our IP for Creatives Online series on digital property rights. Check out part 1 on IP for Podcasting here, part 2 on IP for Social Media Influencers and Content Creators, and part 3 on IP for Graphic Designers and Visual Artists.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this article shall be construed as legal advice.
The Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property, an initiative of the Michelson 20MM Foundation, provides access to empowering IP education for budding inventors and entrepreneurs. Michelson 20MM was founded thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon Dr. Gary K. Michelson and Alya Michelson. To learn more, visit 20mm.org.