Copyrighted Works: What Can and Can't I Sell?


Did you know that copyright infringement can land you with a fine of up to $150,000?

This is a serious sum of money. Not only that but illegal use of copyrighted works can carry prison sentences of up to 5 years.

If you're starting a small CNC business, it can be confusing trying to figure out which works are copyrighted and which aren't.

However, it's essential that you wrap your head around what you can and can't use for your woodwork products. 

Fortunately, once you know the basics of how copyright works, avoiding infringement is pretty straightforward. 

Protect yourself and your business and carry on reading to discover the laws around copyrighted works. 

What Are Copyrighted Works?

Copywrite is a form of intellectual property and covers originally created works of authorship. These include things like:

  • Books

  • Poems

  • Art

  • Paintings

  • Designs

  • Lyrics

  • Sound recordings

  • Video recordings

  • Photographs

  • Sheet music

  • Sound recordings

  • Quotes

Copyrighted works can't be reproduced, copied, or sold by anyone who doesn't hold the rights or written permission to do so. 

Therefore, if you were to engrave the lyrics of a copyrighted song onto a product, this would be a copyright infringement. The same holds true for reproducing copyrighted designs, sketches, and art. 

Territorial Copyright

Another thing to be aware of when it comes to how copyright works, is that copyrights are territorial. This means that if you are selling products to consumers outside of your region, you will need to make sure none of your designs are copyrighted works in their region. 

To check if something is copyrighted in the US you can browse the U.S. Copyright Records.

Copyrighted Works vs Trademarks

Wondering how does copyright work when it comes to trademarks? Trademarks are a type of intellectual property that identifies a brand, such as logos, brand symbols, and brand names. 

These are also protected under intellectual property laws. 

Therefore, you can't reproduce trademarks you don't own, unless you have written permission. For instance, you can't take the Disney logo and engrave it onto wood products, unless you have express permission from the Disney brand. 

To make sure a design or name is not trademarked, you can visit the USPTO trademark database.

Fair Use and Copyrighted Works

If you've been wondering how copyright works, you may have heard the term "fair use."

Fair use is a legal doctrine that, for the purpose of freedom of expression, allows the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain ways. These include:

  • Educational purposes

  • Commentary purposes

  • Parody

  • Research

For instance, someone doing a filmed review of a movie may use show small snippets of the movie during their commentary. 

However, there are a few other conditions that determine whether something is fair use. 

One of these is the amount of material used. In the example of the movie review, if the reviewer includes too much of the movie footage in their filmed commentary this could be viewed as copyright infringement. Another factor is how much of their own input the person using the licensed material is including. 

If the movie reviewer says very little, and simply plays back the movie with a couple of short comments here and there, this could also be deemed a breach of copyright law. 

Another factor is the nature of the copyrighted work. As a rule of thumb, the more creative a work is, the tighter the copyright around it.

For instance, you can use facts and statics from copyrighted material, as long as you cite the source. However, you can't copy someone's original drawing from Etsy and cite the seller as the source!

Lastly, the impact your use of copyright work has on the original work also plays a role when determining fair use. If your use impacts the sales of the original, then it is unlikely you'll have protection under fair use. 

What's more, use of copyrighted works for commercial gain is almost never allowed under fair use. 

Obtaining a License to Replicate Copyrighted Works

If you do wish to legally use copyrighted works in your CNC products, you will need to obtain permission from the owner. 

In many cases, you will need to sign a licensing agreement. This will specify the terms of noncommercial use and commercial use. You may also need to pay a licensing fee. 

You can also buy designs from marketplaces that come with commercial licenses. 

What Published Works Are Not Copyrighted?

So if you can't use quotes, other people's art, or designs, what can you use for your CNC machined designs? Well, for one, you can create your own designs or commission an artist. 

You can also look for works that aren't copyrighted and are in the public domain. But what published works aren't copyrighted and how do I find these?

There are various places online that provide public domain images, artwork, and designs. One of these is Wikimedia Commons. You can also find public domain works on places like Pixabay, Unsplash, and WPClipart. 

Just make sure you check each individual file to ensure that it's licensed in public domain. 

How Do I Copyright My Own Work?

If you are CNCing products with graphic designs, the best way to avoid all copyright issues is to produce your own designs. 

If you're already doing that, you may be wondering, "So how do I copyright my own work so no one steals it?"

When you create an original work it falls under copyright law, you automatically gain the copyrights to it.

However, you can also choose to register your copyrighted works. This creates an official record of the copyright and allows you to file a lawsuit should someone violate the copyright. 

To register a copyright on a sketch, drawing, design, or other creative work, you can use the U.S. Copyright Office's electronic filing system. Start by creating an account, then opt to "Register a New Claim," and fill out the provided forms and fields. 

For visual works, you will need to submit an electronic copy with your application. A basic copyright filing will cost you around $35. 

Steer Clear of Using Copyrighted Works in Your CNC Products

The laws around copyrighted works are stringent, and the fines can be steep. According to reports, the median fine for copyright infringement in 2015 was $107,808. 

What's more, even though there are some cases where fair use applies—it's hard to determine for sure whether something is fair use or not. Fair use is highly subjective and depends on the nature of the copyrighted work and how it's used. 

Overall, it's best to avoid using any copyrighted work in your CNC machining.

Now that you have the low down on copyrighted works, are you ready to start creating your own unique designs? Check out our Easel carving software to get started. 

You can also browse the rest of our online CNC machining store for all the materials and components you need to fuel your creations.


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