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Copyright in design: How to own it and never get caught out

Copyright protects graphics and design. Copyright, patents, designs and trademarks are all types of intellectual property protection. Designers get some types of protection automatically, you’ll have to apply for your copyright after you get your content from your designer, or arrange it prior to work being carried out.

It’s pretty obvious that you can’t go around stealing someone’s logo, and your designer should know this. You’d not only look a little silly, and you’d deserve a threatening letter on your doorstep!

But, this goes far deeper than using some one’s jpeg…

Copyright runs deep in many areas of design and you might not have ever thought about how that transcends into images, style, and where you place them.

If you’re working with a branding agency like us, then here are some areas of copyright in design for you to consider.



The copyright is all ours… we created it

Here’s the big one that many are surprised to hear.

If you commission us to create a design, brand, logo, or similar then the copyright is ours. It’s ours until you pay us and it’s ours afterwards too. We’re the creators and the copyright is automatically given to us.

It’s pretty much unknown, but unless you ask for the copyright, the design copyright will stay with the agency who created it, as that’s who the law states owns it – unless it’s passed over in a legal agreement.

The important thing to remember therefore is to get the copyright when you have anything designed so that you’re future proofed. Ensure that you have full ownership over your design so you don’t find yourself in trouble with your own collateral or brand.



The design itself can be protected; the rest can’t


The actual design can be protected and the way the design is set, the unique logo or graphics, and the images you use can be protected as a final entity. But you can’t protect it all.

There was an interesting case recently where a baby product was (allegedly) copied by supermarket chain, Aldi. In any case, the design was rather similar. The pushchair cover that helps to keep the baby cool in the heat, Snoozeshade is a simple design and uses a material that covers the pram or pushchair and stops the heat getting in.

The Aldi alternative is very similar and the supermarket marketing even uses a lot of the wording from the original site. It’s unclear as we write this what the outcome of this scenario will be, but it shows you that big brands can and do copy – or at least ‘get inspired by’ other products and that you can’t protect against it all.

Plagiarising text and content is one thing, but using elements of a design, including materials, can’t be protected as much as one might think.

This follows through with other areas of design too. You can protect the final product, and we suspect this will be the argument against Aldi, but you can’t protect the elements such as colour, style, or story that make up the design.

That said, when you go up against Sainsbury’s like Jel Singh Nagra did, you’re best to back down and remove your Singhsbury’s sign when they threaten legal action against logo infringement as they have most likely protected it beyond most!



If your design or images are used, you have rights you can push for

Just like Sainsbury’s and other brands who’ve fought for the removal of images or branding that infringed on their copyright, you can protect your brand.

Most large companies will cooperate and try to come to an agreement…  it’s simply not worth the bad PR and they have the money and resources to re-design products and re-work their marketing.

If you’ve taken images or commissioned someone to, and you own the copyright then you have a very good case against anyone who uses them. For the most part you’ll find it an easy conversation with a larger company as they know all too well the rules of the game.

It’s always best to check who owns the copyright before you publish, though, so that you’re covered in the future.

In the US they’re less protected than us, and this article about fashion companies copying smaller businesses’ designs makes for interesting reading.



Be careful of other’s copyright


Moving on from being copied yourself, make sure that you or your designer source content for your designs that are eligible for use. Right-clicking on Google images isn’t the best approach and even on your company blog you’ll be seen to breach copyright.

An approach like this might result in you getting an email like many did from Shutterstock after the digital image site they used digital tracking software to find all the images that were used without being purchased (cross-referencing the meta data in the images). They issued fines to the website owners.

If you or your designer is going to use images, graphics, or photography then make sure you know who owns the copyright.

In an interesting case in the past few years, it turns out that selfies taken by a celeb’s Crested Macaque Monkey, using equipment belonging to the British nature photographer David Slater, was first seen as the right of the monkey, not the photographer.

In a cruel twist of fate, the photographer lost the rights to the photos as he didn’t ‘create’ them, and they were deemed the right of the monkey. This was until in 2018 the courts stated that an animal can’t own the copyright for anything as it’s not human and the images remain copyright free and are freely used (as well as by the photographer himself) across the web.

But most images are not taken by a monkey, and will be the property of someone human, so make sure that you buy your images and graphics and save a copy of the contract and Ts and Cs so that you can prove you have the right to use them as deemed by the creator.



Commission it and then ask for copyright


The main takeaway here is that, unless you ask for it, you don’t own the copyright and you should if you’re going to use it in your marketing and branding. It’s unlikely that a designer like us will ever try to be awkward about it and you should be given copyright right away. That said, it’s not always standard practice and if nothing is done, you don’t own the right to designs created for you.

If you need help, advice, or of course new designs then please do contact us.

We create from credible sources, we use elements that are acquired correctly and then of course we create brand, graphics, images, and photography ourselves so our work is as unique as a Macaque selfie.

For unique branding and design that you own, BeSmart and drop us an email today.



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