This is another guest blog post by attorney Cheryl Hodgson, one of the Art Licensing Info experts and Ask Call participants.

While a copyright is valid without registration, the very statement is misleading.  Copyright registration is essential to preserve key remedies for infringement. Unless registered prior to infringement, attorney’s fees and statutory damages are not available.  It is often difficult, if not impossible, to prove actual damages or profits attributable to theft of a copyrighted work.  Moreover, without the threat of having to pay attorney’s fees to the copyright owner, there is little, if any, chance of finding counsel to bring a costly and drawn out infringement action on a speculative basis.  Establishing a strong brand identity for a particular character or product line can serve as an added source of protection and increase the value of the Intellectual Property beyond mere copyright.

An artist’s name, as well as names and logos for particular product lines, can also be protected as trademarks for the goods on which they are licensed. For example, characters from Star Wars have been on bedding, toys, and just about everything else.  While the artistic expression of a character remains protectible by copyright, registration of the character and/or its name on the various products as a trademark has been a strategy of film studios for many years.  The character becomes part of the “branded entertainment” package that not only brings in additional revenues but helps create wide spread exposure and recognition of the character as a trademark.

Trade Dress protection offers tremendous opportunities to expand IP protection beyond copyright, especially where artists develop a unique use of color combinations and/or designs which become identified with them.  Developing protectible trade dress requires advance planning since use must be more than “just another pretty picture.”

Product packaging and designs, including color combinations and artistic images, can function as trade dress, provided they are not used in a merely ornamental manner.   To be an inherently distinctive aspect of trade dress, a design should “come out into the spotlight of real trademark significance” and ‘hit the buyer in the eye.” See 1 J.T. McCarthy, McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition §7:28 (4th ed. 2000). “Use of distinctive design elements must be in a manner so unusual, unique, or unexpected as to be “automatically perceived by customers as an indicator of origin – a trademark.” Id. §8:13.   One case example was the use of a rose design as background on a CLARINS product packaging.  Registration of the rose background was refused since use was only as decorative background, not as a mark signifying the source of the products.

With proper counsel, visual artists could well do both, namely maintaining the artist aspect of the use, but also creating an additional use consistent across many design groups that come to signify the artist’s work.

Here’s to your creative and defendable success!

– Tara Reed

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P.P.S. To register your art with the Library of Congress, start at