by G. John Cole, a contributing author to the Opterre team.
- It is your ideas that make you money. But how do you protect them?
- … By creating works or knowledge products.
- When you produce your work, it automatically becomes copyrighted.
- But registering for copyright might not be the best strategy. It’s costly and time consuming.
- Using Creative Commons license establishes and communicates the precise way that you’d like your work to be treated.
Please note that we are not lawyers. Do not take what you’re about to read as legal advice, but as business advice. When you are ready to file a copyright or trademark, please check with a lawyer who’s an expert in the field. Now let’s begin…
If you’re a consultant, coach, or a freelancer giving advice, think of yourself as a thought leader. Those thoughts can be your assets that will make you money. Professionals, like you, in every industry and across a variety of roles are producing original material to share and distribute their ideas online and in the workplace.
Some create text or videos to stimulate discussion and build a network of prospects and business associates. Others are creating as part of a content marketing strategy – sharing elements of their knowledge to draw customers to their main revenue-generating product.
Every time you publish a Tweet, a blog entry, or a How-To e-book, you’re creating value. But some people can’t imagine allowing such value to fall into the public domain. However, if you assume that this value is best copyrighted and monetized, you may find yourself missing out on a host of opportunities.
Just look at how vigorously the recording industry held out against the flexibility of digital file distribution. The music business wouldn’t bend – so instead, it broke.
Case study: The Consultant
The music industry had to deal with a difficult transition from a physical product to digital files.
A consultant’s product is even less concrete than an MP3. As a consultant, your ideas are your “products.” Also, those “knowledge products” make you money. A knowledge product could be a method of analysis (ex. The Pyramid Principle), information that you’ve derived (ex. The End of Jobs), a strategy (how to use inbound marketing for success), and really anything else you can think up.
However, ideas are easily copied. In fact, you can’t copyright an idea in itself. But putting it down on paper or online is a great way to establish that a concept is your intellectual property (IP).
To some degree, you want to be copied – or at least for your work to have influence. Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. It raises your standing in the industry. However, what steps can you take to ensure your hard work and originality are not exploited at your cost?
Copyright vs. trademark
We can begin by noting the subtle distinction between the uses of copyright and trademark. Broadly, copyright protects your knowledge products while trademarks are used to prevent businesses from copying the name, slogan, or logo that you use to brand your service.
Explicitly, the United States Patent and Trademark Office states that trademarking is for “words, names, symbols, sounds or colors that distinguish goods and services from those manufactured or sold by others and to indicate the source of the goods.”
It’s worth trademarking your brand identity because, while ideas will always flow between professionals in a given industry, it’s your approach to these ideas that sets you apart from the competition. But more on that later.
Whether you should copyright your knowledge products and how to go about it is a bit more complicated.
How to get a copyright
The first thing to note about copyright is: don’t panic! The moment your work takes a tangible form, it is protected. Some jurisdictions may offer a registration service, but this does not change the fact that your content is automatically copyrighted.
Registering your work confers some legal advantages. The critical point is that you’ll need to have registered your content if you want to file a lawsuit to issue an injunction or claim damages. If you register the work, its origins will be on public record. The sooner you do it, the better it looks in court if someone should contest your copyright later.
Once registered, if somebody violates your copyright, you’ll have options available to you. For example, if a competitor re-publishes your blog post without permission, you can ask the court to issue an injunction to take it down. If somebody tries to sell your e-book without authorization or incorporates your text into his or her book, you may be able to sue for the profits they make. If you lose business due to infringement, you can sue for damages.
However, registration takes time and money – upwards of six months and $35 each time. Also, while a consultant’s ideas are their product, it isn’t the ideas themselves that make you a living. It’s the consulting: the adaptation and application of those ideas for your clients.
In other words, unless your writing or your videos are in themselves a vital source of revenue for your business, aggressively protecting them may be at best futile and at worst, time-consuming and costly.
In many cases, the critical distinction to make is that of attribution. When consultants and entrepreneurs begin to use your ideas, it is a matter of your pride and professional reputation that they should give credit where it’s due. Rather than stamping a strict copyright notice on your work or taking the other direction and declaring it a public domain free-for-all, there is a third way by which you can protect your interests while allowing your ideas to travel.
The benefits of a Creative Commons license
When your ideas become tangible and acquire copyright, the work automatically falls under the All Rights Reserved license. Pretty stiff, huh? However, it means you’re going to come across two types of user: the ‘goodies’ who avoid copying your work so as not to court trouble, and the ‘baddies’ who don’t care and decide to plagiarize you on their terms since they probably won’t get caught anyway.
You can create a lot more good will and positive publicity by embracing the potential of other people sharing your work the way you want it.
A Creative Commons license is an alternative form of copyright that allows others to copy or distribute your work under the terms you set. For example, you might allow users to cut and paste your blog posts to their blog, so long as they give you credit and a link back to your website. Alternatively, you might encourage content creators to cut-up and re-use your video materials in their work, on the condition that they allow others to do the same with the resulting content.
Being seen to put work in the creative commons will reflect positively on your reputation, conveying an impression of:
- Confidence: you are successful enough as a consultant that you can afford to share your ideas.
- Decency: the nurturing of up-and-coming industry talent and the advocacy of high standards and best practice.
- Transparency: your ideas are sound and ethical and will stand up to public scrutiny.
It can also be considered a ‘free’ form of advertising (particularly when pursued as part of a well-considered inbound marketing campaign.) If you’re a freelancer without the benefits of a trusted agency name over your head, having your work used and shared by respected peers can lend you an invaluable sense of legitimacy.
The beauty of the Creative Commons license is that it both establishes and communicates the precise way that you’d like your work to be treated. That’s because there are multiple forms of CC license, and each comes with its own set of descriptors stating whether users should attribute credit, whether he or she can remix the work, if he or she is allowed to profit from it, and even the type of license others should in use turn if he or she redistributes it.
How to decide which copyright is for you
Here’s the thing: there are no original ideas. Only what people do with them. When you make your process public, your peers and customers have the chance to develop and innovate from the starting point you’ve provided. You may even end up stealing your idea back from them in its new, improved form!
Also, even if someone copies your ideas, he’ll be hard-pressed to take your market from you. Think of the smartphone (Apple vs. Samsung) and the automobile (Ford, Chevy, BMW, Volvo, etc.) Your ideas are your product, but your personality is your brand. There will always be another client around the corner if you are adept at building relationships and putting your good ideas into practice. (If you’re not, it may be worth concentrating on writing and copyrighting those books and making them your primary source of income.)
We cannot decide for you as to whether the work that you produce will serve you best in the public domain, under a creative commons license, or strictly copyrighted. But a thorough understanding as to the benefits and processes of each approach will be essential as your business expands and your peers and contemporaries begin to take notice of the unique ideas that you share.
If you want more insight about copyrights and how we use them, please make an appointment here.
G. John Cole
John is a digital nomad and freelance writer. Specializing in leadership, digital media and personal growth, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in the UK, Norway, and the Balkans.