In an ideal world, nobody would dream of using your small company's materials without your consent, or attempt to make money by peddling intellectual property they didn’t own. This is not an ideal world, but copyright laws maintain some protection for authors of creative works such as writings, video productions, music, visual arts or architecture, and for the companies that paid for their creation. Although copyright law grants protections and rights to copyright holders, the system is far from perfect.

One of the strengths of U.S. copyright law is that it automatically extends to all creative works as soon as your company publishes them. Any work that could be copyrighted receives limited protections as soon as it’s placed in a fixed format. Companies aren’t required to place a copyright notice on the work to secure their rights, nor are they required to register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office to claim ownership of the piece.

Although these protections are handy for limiting intellectual property theft, they have restrictions. They won't allow your company to seek punitive damages if any of your materials are infringed.

Con: Registration and Fees

Although companies that create works for use in their business passively receive basic protections for their work, they must register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office to be able to seek punitive damages for any infringement or to receive an injunction to halt an infringing action.

Copyright owners must submit each work or collection of works individually to the Copyright Office, accompanied with registration documents – which can be bypassed using online forms – and registration fees that range from $35 to $220. Registering many works can be time-consuming and expensive for small businesses.

Pro: Defends Intellecutal Property Rights

Copyright law was designed to protect the intellectual property of workers in creative fields. Current legislation provides companies a very straightforward and direct approach to dealing with breach of copyright in a civil setting, where they have to provide only the burden of proof – versus proof beyond a reasonable doubt as in criminal proceedings – that the copyright was infringed. Because of this, many copyright actions are much more straightforward than other litigation that companies undertake.

Con: Expensive for Owners to Enforce

Companies that sell copyrighted work or use copyrighted materials as part of their sales material must be vigilant to identify infringements on their own. Even when companies designate a worker to enforce copyright, most matters are handled on a civil basis, rather than criminally enforced by authorities.

This process can require legal representation in some cases. In the case of appeals, small copyright owners might have difficulty affording long-term representation. Conversely, a small defendant might not have the means to fight a copyright infringement lawsuit from a large corporation, even if she is not guilty.

Pro: Immediate Action

If your company owns a copyright on any work that's registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, it can seek a court injunction that commands the infringing party to immediately cease and desist publication or performance of the work in question. This action is immediate. It moves much more quickly than criminal or civil proceedings against an infringing party, and it can at least stop additional losses due to copyright infringement.

Con: Ambiguity

Although many issues covered by U.S. copyright law are straightforward, by the very nature of creativity, some areas are ambiguous and open to interpretation. Concepts such as the fair use doctrine and distinguishing derivative works from original creations aren’t clearly defined, and they must be decided by a judge or a jury on a case-by-case basis. Because of this, sometimes a company that owns copyrighted material expends time and money in pursuing its case, only to discover that the work wasn't infringing by the court's definition.