How Do I Protect My Unpublished Cartoons From Being Copied?

Prevent copyright infringement of comics or cartoons before it goes to print.

By , Attorney

Question

I am an aspiring cartoonist, although my work has not yet published. My goal is to place my work in magazines or newspapers. However, I already have a broad portfolio of work, which I eventually plan to submit to editors. Before I do, what kinds of intellectual property protection do I need in order to secure my rights to the cartoons?

Answer

Anyone who makes creative work must consider their intellectual property rights. After all, if you are a painter, architect, or musician, sitting back while infringers "steal" your work could mean you lose a critical source of income or recognition.

Fortunately, copyright law is a helpful tool for protecting your creative output and helping the world realize that you are the one behind it.

Many artists are surprised to learn that copyright law protects their creations immediately, as soon as pen is set to paper (or brush to canvas, or fingers to keyboard), without any need for forms or lawyers.

You already have a copyright on your cartoons simply by having fixed them on paper.

But that legal entitlement is often not enough. How will you prove that you created a work, as well as the fact that you created it before, not after the infringer?

Here, the easiest solution is to register your works with the U.S. Copyright Office, the federal agency charged with the administration of copyrights. Although registration is not mandatory, there are several benefits to federal registration:

  • Registration is the simplest way to prove that you created a particular work and the date on which you created it.
  • If you register within five years of publishing your work, you are presumed to own and have a valid copyright on it.
  • If you need to sue someone for infringement of your artwork, you'll need to show that you have registered the copyright with the Copyright Office.
  • If your artwork is registered prior to someone's infringement, or within three months of its publication, a successful lawsuit against your infringer may entitle you to special payments, known as "statutory damages," and to reimbursement for what you spend on attorney's fees.

Registration of a copyright on artwork (known to the Copyright Office as "Visual Art") is pretty simple. No lawyers are required.

You can register your cartoon by submitting application Form VA to the U.S. Copyright Office, along with a $45 fee (2019 figure) and the appropriate deposit materials. Note that registration fees may increase from year to year.

Visual artwork can even be registered online, if you have a digital image.

What if you have dozens of cartoons already drawn? Do you need to register each one individually? Fortunately, no. If you have been prolific, you can go ahead and register a whole group of unpublished cartoons for the same basic filing fee.

While at the Copyright Office website, you can get more information by downloading Circular 44, Cartoons and Comic Strips, and Circular 40, Copyright Registration for Works of the Visual Arts.

Beyond copyright registration, it is also good practice to place the familiar copyright notice (for example, Copyright © 2019 First/Last Name) on each published copy of your cartoon. This tells anyone who sees the work that the copyright is being claimed, the name of the person claiming it, and when the work was first published.

The presence of this mark prevents an infringer from later claiming that the infringement was accidental. And hopefully, it scares them away from infringing in the first place!

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