Copyright, patent, trademark, and trade secrets are all ways in which people can protect their intellectual property. However, there are key differences in each of the protective instruments in regard to what exactly they're protecting.

One of the most common tools used in cases of intellectual property is copyright. According to the Government's Copyright office, it protects, "original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture." It does not protect "… facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation." In laymen's terms, you would most likely see a "C" inside of a circle (representing copyright) in a book, on a CD, on video games, and even play scripts.

This form of intellectual property law is designed to safeguard the creator. Consumers like you could be at risk of copyright infringement without even knowing it. For this reason it's good to read up on how to play by the rules when it comes to using work with the © stamp. It's important to note that even if a piece of work does not declare the copyright symbol, it may still be protected under the law. Legalzoom describes the idea behind copyright by writing, "the author or creator owns the rights to the work and can decide if and how others use his or her creation." It's especially unlawful if you were to use someone's copyrighted work for profit or commercial purposes. Legalzoom also lists a few examples of copyright infringement that may seem harmless to consumers, but are actually illegal.

  • Downloading movies and music without proper payment for use
  • Recording movies in the theater
  • Using others' photographs for a blog without permission
  • Copying software without giving proper credit
  • Creating videos with unlicensed music clips
  • Copying books, blogs or podcasts without permission
  • Anything where you are copying someone else's original work without an agreement

If you've ever scrolled through YouTube, you've probably come across an amateur singer performing a cover piece of a well-known song. If that amateur artist did not get permission from the original songwriter, it's technically copyright infringement. Will a big time celebrity file lawsuit on a singer's video with 10 views? Probably not, but he or she technically could. Big companies sometimes employ software that can troll the Internet for the main purpose of seeking out copyright infringement cases, so taking the risk is not a good idea.

In order to avoid copyright infringement, you should be weary about how you're using an artistic expression that you did not create. Regardless without you see the copyright symbol or not, you should always assume the owner would take legal action against you if you were to use their work freely without permission or credit.

Some artists or writers are actually more than willing to share their work with the world, but read up on this first. These types of agreements come in the form of licenses, which allow consumers to use the work with specific regulations and stipulations attached.

If you're using the piece of work for educational purposes, there's no need to lay awake at night worrying about that picture you used in your slide show last week. There's an exception called "fair use", which allows for what would normally be infringement is the use was for a non-commercial ratione.

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