Protégez votre travail

Learning about copyright

Sooner or later every entrepreneur will come into contact with copyright. Copyright is much broader than you might think, it’s not only for literature, music, videos, photos, drawings. But also for computer program source code, (scientific) texts, logos, websites, buildings, for example. So even if you are not an author or artist, you as an entrepreneur will have to deal with it (by creating copyrighted works yourself or by using copyrighted works of others).

Discover more about copyright in this guide.

Copyright protects original and creative works that have been elaborated in a tangible form. You can see and/or hear them for example. Ideas can thus not be protected. Copyright protection gives you as the creator/author an exclusive right to publish, reproduce and communicate your creations to the public. You can also determine the conditions under which others may use your creations.

Every original work in a tangible form can be protected under copyright. Tangible means it needs to be written down, painted, etc. Therefore, you cannot protect abstract ideas. Originality means that the author has added a personal touch by making creative choices, not that it needs to be artistic or aesthetic. There are no registration requirements, because copyright is automatically held by the creator.

As the creator you automatically obtain copyright on your work form the moment you create it. That is the case for most countries worldwide. No registration is required. Despite this, many countries use a voluntary registration system that can help solve disputes over ownership or creation date. In countries where there is no copyright registration (for example Belgium or the Netherlands), having proof that you created something on a given date can be useful. There are several options for providing this proof:

  • a deposit. You can file your work with a notary, a bailiff or at a collective management society for copyrights. Another option is recording your work in an i-DEPOT with BOIP;
  • a publication on a given date (for example a magazine or newspaper);
  • a version control system for software source code.

If you collaborate with others on a creative project, each individual person (or in some cases the company) gets the copyright for their own contribution. For example, a brochure may consist of photos, texts, a layout and a logo. Each creator holds the copyright for their individual creative work that is part of the combined brochure. When a creative work is produced by several parties, the copyright is shared. For example, if two writers both work on the same text, they both get the copyright.

If you hire someone who is not part of your company, for example an external freelancer, you may not own the copyright. This is because copyright is automatically held by the person who created the work. Confusion can arise when an entrepreneur awards a contract and pays for a creative work. Therefore, it’s important to get a written agreement in place in advance that regulates the transfer of the copyright.

Conversely, if you work for a company as an employee, your company is likely to own the copyright, if this is written in your employment contract or any other contract. If others hire you for creative work, it’s important to be clear about who will hold the copyright in advance.

You find a nice picture on the internet that you want to use on your website. Can you do this? Unfortunately no. Copyright gives only the creator – in this case the photographer – the exclusive right to communicate to the public, publish and reproduce their work, provided the work is original. Creators can also set conditions under which others may use their work, for example with a licence such as the Creative Commons licence, which means that the work can be freely used under the circumstances stated in the licence. Copyright can also be transferred. So it’s possible you don’t only have to contact the original author, but also the right holder to whom the rights are transferred. This might be a collective management organisation like Pictoright (NL), Sofam (BE) ... for photographs or Buma/Stemra (NL), SABAM (BE) ... for music.

If you use a copyright-protected work without the creator’s permission, you will be committing a copyright infringement which can lead to court proceedings. Therefore, if you want to use a creative work from someone else, check whether it is protected by copyright and what the conditions are.

In Belgium and the Netherlands, copyright protection lasts for up to 70 years after the authors’ death. If the work is anonymous or pseudonymous, this may be 70 years after first publication of the work. The duration can vary from country to country from 50 to 70 years, often after creation or publication of the work.

Because copyright arises automatically, there are no costs involved. However, if you decide to take action to have proof of the date/existence of your creation, there might be costs involved. For example recording an i-DEPOT with BOIP costs EUR 37.

You can sell your copyright-protected works, such as texts, photos and software. Keep in mind, however, that even though you may transfer your copyright, you still hold some rights as the author. For example, your work still must be attributed to you and your work may not be significantly changed.

Another way to benefit from your copyright is to allow others to use your works under licence, for example:

  • on platforms (for example stock sites)
  • through a collective management organisation such as Buma/Stemra (NL), Pictorights (NL), SOFAM (BE), SABAM (BE) …

If you produce a literary, scientific or artistic work, you can claim the copyright straight away. As the creator/owner of a copyright-protected work you can accuse others of infringement if they use your work without your permission and do not fall within the scope of a legal exception. In most cases a first warning (a cease and desist letter) is sent to the potential infringer with the help of a legal advisor. In this letter the potential infringer is informed of your rights and requested to stop the infringement. Often a settlement can be reached between you and the potential infringer. In some cases, a court judgement will be necessary.

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