Although the purpose of a commercial is to expose as many people to your branding as possible, you don’t want your ad to be used by another to make money for himself. Television and radio commercials are protected by copyright and in some cases may receive additional intellectual property protections through trademark law.

Anytime you create any form of expression -- from television and radio commercials to writing, music or architecture -- U.S. copyright law instantly grants the creation copyright protection as soon as it’s in a fixed form, such as set on videotape or audio recorded in a studio. If you register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office, your copyrights expand to include the ability to seek larger amounts of damages or receive a court injunction that orders an infringing party to immediately stop using the work. Copyright protects your commercial for its creator’s life plus 70 years or. if it was commissioned by your company, 95 years from the date it was first aired.

As a copyright holder of a commercial, whether registered or unregistered, you legally command how it can be used in nearly any situation. You hold exclusive rights for public performance -- essentially broadcast rights -- and sole rights to duplicate the commercial. Because of this, your commercial can’t be aired or screened online without your permission without infringing your copyright. You also hold the exclusive rights to create derivative works based on it, which prevents others from using portions of your video without permission and in many cases copying your ad for their own use.


While copyright law protects other parties from using large portions of your commercial without your permission, it only protects the creative work itself. Short phrases, tag lines or other marketing slogans you may develop in the commercial aren’t protected by copyright. To prevent your competition or other parties from using these phrases, you must seek trademark protection rather than copyright. A trademark covers all uses of the trademarked language but only in the industry in which you applied for a trademark. You may trademark a phrase in as many industries as you like if it’s unclaimed, although each trade category requires its own registration fee.

Ending Infringement

In most cases, intellectual property law is a matter of civil, rather than criminal, law. If you discover another party using your commercial without your consent and it’s registered with the copyright office, you may receive a court order to stop the infringement. If it’s not registered, or the infringement violates a trademark rather than a copyright, you may end the action by issuing a cease-and-desist letter that threatens legal action. If the infringer doesn’t agree to stop violating your intellectual property rights, you can file a lawsuit in civil court. Copyright and trademark law can be difficult to navigate, so you may need to hire an attorney who specializes in those fields.