Not too long ago, I found myself in a conversation with a deeply troubled client. This client had poured their heart and soul into their course, only to find out that a client had republished portions of her content to sell as their own!
What struck me was that this was not an isolated incident. Lately, I've observed a troubling trend in my practice: some of the most serious copyright infringement cases I've handled have been committed by clients of my clients.
Just imagine if you had spent months or even years developing your course framework and then, one day, while browsing social media or the internet, you stumble the EXACT same framework (or something virtually identical) being showcased as the brainchild of a former client. It's a scenario that too many coaches and course creators can relate to, and it stings. What's worse? Very often, this infringement is perpetrated by someone who had inside access to your work and who you trusted, but who turns out to be a trojan horse in your business.
So, what can you do to protect yourself from being in this situation and, if it happens, what should you do next?
Understanding Copyright vs. Proprietary Information
Before we delve into the strategies for protecting your intellectual property, we need to understand the difference between copyright and proprietary information. Copyright safeguards creative works such as books, articles, or online courses, provided they are fixed and tangible medium. Other types of IP, like exclusive coaching methodologies or confidential business processes, may not meet the criteria for copyright protection. Instead, they can be safeguarded through contractual agreements, recognizing them as proprietary information.
Now that we have that straight, how do you protect yourself?
1. Educate Your Clients
Proactive prevention is your first line of defense. It's imperative to ensure that your clients are well-informed about the proper and permissible use of materials to which they gain access. Clearly articulate usage restrictions, licensing agreements, and the potential consequences of unauthorized reproduction or distribution.
2. Register Copyrights
For substantial works like books, online courses, or unique coaching frameworks, consider formal copyright registration through the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration enhances your legal standing in cases of infringement and facilitates claims for statutory damages, offering a robust layer of protection.
3. Draft Comprehensive Contracts
In your client agreements, incorporate explicit and meticulously crafted clauses that delineate ownership and usage rights concerning the intellectual property you provide. These contractual provisions should leave no room for ambiguity, ensuring that your clients acknowledge and accept these terms without reservation.
4. Seek Legal Counsel
An experienced copyright attorney can guide you through the process of copyright registration, and , if you have experienced infringement, issue a cease-and-desist letter, negotiate with infringing parties, and, if necessary, litigate the issue on your behalf.
Your intellectual property is more than just a collection of words, ideas, or concepts; it is a testament to your dedication, expertise, and innovation. While the risk of intellectual property infringement cannot be entirely eradicated, the steps outlined above — educating clients, pursuing copyright registration, crafting robust contractual agreements, vigilant monitoring, and seeking legal counsel — can significantly mitigate your exposure to copyright infringement.
If you would like to discuss proactively protecting your intellectual property or what you should do if you've run into the unfortunate situation of a former client, or anyone else, claiming your intellectual property as their own, please book a complimentary consultation with our team.