How to Copyright a Design

By River Braun, J.D.

How to Copyright a Design

By River Braun, J.D.

It's a little known fact that certain copyright protections attach to designs and other original works of art the moment a creator puts them down on a tangible medium, whether physical or digital. These protections extend to all types of designs, including graphic designs, ship designs, and building designs. However, registering original designs with the U.S. Copyright Office provides additional benefits to the owner, including the ability to sue for infringement and seek statutory damages and attorneys' fees in federal court. Follow these steps to register your design copyright and secure protection for your work.

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1. Create your design.

Create your design onto a fixed medium. For example, if you have an idea for a t-shirt design, you need to create a pen-and-paper drawing or digital rendering of your design. You can use the same method for more intricate designs, such as architectural or automotive designs. The key is to put the design into a tangible form that illustrates the design elements you create.

2. File your application and pay the filing fees.

File an application to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. You can complete this process electronically by using the online eCO system or by filling out Form VA and mailing it to the U.S. Copyright Office. Generally, filing online provides faster processing times and is slightly less expensive than mailing in your application. You can find the full list of fees in U.S. Copyright Office Circular 4.

In certain situations though, you must send in your application via mail, along with additional information provided on the Continuation Sheet for Application Forms (Form CON). For example, you must register vessel designs via mail using Form D-VH. If you have a design for a mask, you must use Form MW.

3. Submit your design.

Submit your design to the U.S. Copyright Office. If you apply for copyright registration online using the eCO service, you can attach an electronic version of your work. Even if you submit an online application, the Library of Congress may require a hard copy of the "best edition" of your design. If filing an application for the design of a car, building, or ship, you are not required to send a physical model of the finished product—detailed schematics or drawings suffice for the submission requirements. If you are submitting a paper application, you may submit a 2D or 3D version of your design or an electronic version in the form of a compact disc.

Copyright protection of your design commences on the date the U.S. Copyright Office has received all required materials. From that point, protection extends for a set period of time, depending on certain factors. Generally, for designs created after 1978, protection lasts for the life of the designer plus 70 years. For designs made under a pseudonym, anonymously, or in a work made for hire situation, copyright protection extends 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the design's creation, whichever period expires first.

Before you choose to copyright a design, first learn about copyright law and the rules regarding how to submit a design for protection. You can follow these steps, but be sure to conduct your own additional research on the U.S. Copyright Office website to learn more about the process, time, and costs associated with applying for copyright protection.

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