Copyright law protects the creative expressions of those who created them.
Whether you’re an artist who has created a logo or piece of art, a photographer who has taken photographs, a software developer who has written an application, or a writer who has written a book (collectively, “copyrightable work“) — copyright law creates a number of “rights” that are owned by the copyright holder in the copyrightable work. Such rights include the right to use, to display publicly, to sell or transfer, to make copies, to create derivative works, etc.
The general rule is: The one who created a copyrightable work owns all the copyrights associated with that copyrightable work, unless that person was an employee making the copyrightable work in furtherance of his or her employment. If so, then the employer is the one who owns the copyrightable work. There are exceptions to this general rule, including agreement between the parties in contract, or if the employee is actually a contractor. If a contractor, then the contractor owns the copyrights to the copyrightable work.
If you are the one who created the copyrightable work, then you own the copyrights in that copyrightable work — unless (1) you are an employee of the one paying you for the copyrightable work, or (2) there is a contract containing an assignment and/or “work made for hire” provision the contract granting your client the rights to the copyrightable work.
To stop someone from using your artwork (or copyrightable work), whether a previous client or other party, I recommend you do two things:
- Send the infringing party a notice to them that you own the copyrights, and that they are prohibited from further use of the copyrightable work without your permission, and
- This is critical: Register the copyrightable work, as a copyright with the US Copyright Office, if you haven’t done so already.
#1 above serves infringing party “notice”, and therefore any ongoing use could be considered willful.
#2 gives you the right to sue, claim statutory damages and claim willful activity (which has other benefits to you, including additional damages and attorneys fees), only if you’ve met certain time limits. This is a critical point, so please read our other knowledge-base article, entitled Why It’s Important to Register a Copyright ASAP!.
If the infringing party does not stop their use of your copyrightable work within a “reasonable time”, then hire an IP attorney to help you enforce your rights.