How to Copyright a Design

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Original designs in tangible forms automatically qualify for copyright protection. To copyright graphic designs, all you need to do is create them. However, for additional protection, register your design with the U.S. Copyright office by following these steps.

When you create an original design and fix it in a tangible form, it automatically qualifies for copyright protection. While you aren't required to register your design with the U.S. Copyright Office, registering it gives you protection that is enforceable by the courts. To register, you must submit an application, filing fees and send at least one copy of the design to the Library of Congress to keep on file.

You Can Only Protect Original Designs

To register a design with the U.S. Copyright Office, it must be distinct from any image or design in existence. Your design can be hand-drawn artwork or a unique image placed on an everyday object to make it more decorative. You cannot copyright a common design, pattern or symbol already available and used in the public such as a stop sign or traffic signal. Designs that embellish useful articles must serve more than a practical or functional purpose to qualify for copyright protection of the design. For instance, you can copyright the design of an ornate handle on a teapot because of its aesthetic characteristics, but not merely because it's practical.

Designs Can Be Multidimensional

The U.S. Copyright Office accepts applications to register copyrights for designs under the pictorial, graphic and sculptural works category, as long as the designs contain at least one of those three elements. This category includes two-dimensional and three-dimensional designs such as jewelry designs, wallpaper designs, stain-glass designs and technical and mechanical drawings. This category includes carvings, engravings, etchings, molds, models and label designs as well.

Apply Online or by Mail

You can file an application through the U.S. Copyright Office online at the electronic copyright office, referred to as eCO, or with a paper application using Form VA for visual arts. Designate the title of the work, the nature of the work, the name of the author and the nature of the authorship, such as "creator of a two-dimensional artwork" or "sculptor of three-dimensional sculpture." Provide the year of creation, the date of first publication and the name and address of the copyright claimant. You must certify the application if you are the author, claimant, exclusive owner or an authorized agent of the copyright owner. You can mail the paper application along with the filing fees and a copy of your design to the Library of Congress.

Protect Your Design for 10 Years

Your copyright registration for a design lasts 10 years from the date that your design appears in public or your copyright registration is published. To provide a copyright notice on a registered copyright design, you mark the item with the words "Protected Design" or use the abbreviation "Prot'd Des." Alternatively, you can use a capital "D" inside a circle or between asterisks. Until you receive your copyright registration number, add the date of registration and your name to the copyright notice. After you receive your registration number, mark your protected design with the registration number instead of the date of registration and your name. You have the exclusive right to use your original design in sale or trade.


About the Author

Based in Los Angeles, Victoria McGrath has been writing law-related articles since 2004. She specializes in intellectual property, copyright and trademark law. She earned a Juris Doctor from the University of Arizona, College of Law. McGrath pursued both her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Fine Arts at University of California, Los Angeles, in film and television production. Her work has been published in the Daily Bruin and La Gente Newsmagazine.

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