intellectual property rights
Selling an online course can be a lucrative way to scale your business as an online expert, but it doesn’t come without its challenges. Maybe you’ve heard of (or have experienced) some common issues. For instance, coaching clients stealing course materials and soliciting peers for their own programs. Or customers demanding refunds after they’ve gotten access to everything in the online course. The list of horrific possibilities is endless — and the last thing you want is for that to be you.
While the legal aspects of an online course may seem overwhelming, there are a few key areas to understand that will help you protect your knowledge and course materials. In this blog post, we’ll explore what those areas are so you can confidently create your online course and grow your impact!
First and foremost, it’s important to recognize your intellectual property rights over the content you create for your online course. Here are the key aspects to know:
When you create original course materials, such as videos, written content, and graphics, you automatically hold the copyright to that content. It is not legally required that you register your copyright to be the legal owner. However, registering your copyright with The United States Copyright Office will strengthen your legal protection and allow you to take legal action against copyright infringers.
Trademark law protects your brand identity. Examples of things you can trademark for your online course are your course name, logo, or slogan. Federal trademark registration with The United States Patent and Trademark Office is the best way to prevent others from using similar names or designs that could confuse potential customers of your online course.
Licensing is the process of giving customers and clients certain permission to use your intellectual property. For instance, your customers will at least need permission to copy your course materials for their own personal use in order to implement the course curriculum. We’ll talk more about how to license your course materials through the use of your course’s terms and conditions.
As previously stated, registering the copyright to your online course is not required in order to receive legal protection. However, you must file an application for registration before you can sue someone for infringing your copyright. This is true even if the infringement has already happened.
Aside from the ability to file a lawsuit, having a copyright registration for your online course puts teeth behind any cease and desist you may send. It’s much easier to stop someone from using your course materials without your permission when you have a federal copyright registration to back you up.
While the copyright registration process is fairly straightforward, there are some nuisances to be aware of when registering the copyright to your online course.
Types of Works
The U.S. Copyright Act protects a wide variety of digital content; however, there is no single application to register an online course. Instead, you must identify the predominant elements of your course materials and submit an application under the appropriate type of work.
For most online courses, you’ll file two separate applications for registration. One for literary works and one for performing arts. A literary work is a work that explains, describes, or narrates a particular subject, theme, or idea through the use of narrative, descriptive, or explanatory text. Thus, the literary works registration will protect any written materials in your course.
Works of the performing arts include a wide variety of creative works, including music, sound recordings, scripts, and similar types of works. Therefore, a performing arts application will protect any videos or audio recordings in your online course.
The U.S. Copyright Office has a number of registration tutorials available to walk you through the process.
Trademark law protects your brand identity. Examples of things you can trademark for your online course are your course name, logo, or slogan.
Unlike copyright registration, the name you create for your online course may not be able to receive federal trademark registration. For example, names that are merely descriptive or generic will not register. Instead, your course name should be creative, unique, and set you apart from competitors. When consumers see or hear your name, they should be able to immediately identify you as the source of your products.
Another key distinction between the copyright and trademark registration process is the length of time, significant financial investment, and legal requirements throughout the trademark process. While you’re not required to have an attorney register your trademark, I strongly recommend that you speak with a knowledgeable trademark attorney and educate yourself on the process before starting.
As with any area of your business, written contracts are essential to protecting your online course. Here are two important contracts you’ll need to have in place:
Contract #1: Confidentiality and Work for Hire Agreement
If you’re hiring contractors or employees to produce materials for your online course, have them sign this agreement. This contract establishes your ownership of anything they create, such as graphics, marketing copy, or video production of your course materials.
This is important because, as previously discussed, whoever creates an original work owns it under copyright law. Unless you state (in a written contract) that the work they create will be deemed “works made for hire” or be transferred over to your business, you run the risk of costly ownership claims down the road.
In addition to establishing your copyright ownership of course materials, this agreement also requires that workers keep confidential information they learn about your business, confidential. This confidentiality must be maintained during and after they’re done working with you.
If you need a lawyer-drafted confidentiality and work-for-hire agreement, you can visit our contract template shop.
Contract #2: Online Course Terms and Conditions
Your Online Course Terms and Conditions is your contract with customers who purchase your online course. This agreement is essential to outlining course policies, like refunds and cancellations, and setting expectations with your customers around coaching calls and access. It is also critical in protecting your course IP.
Your online course terms should not only state your ownership rights, but it should specifically outline how customers can and cannot use course materials. For instance, this contract should indicate that customers can only use course materials for their personal use. They cannot copy, redistribute, or use your materials in any commercial way unless you give them express written permission to do so under a licensing agreement.
Other key terms to include in this contract are:
- No guarantee/disclaimers for specific results
- Termination and revocation of course access
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of how to legally protect your online courses. If you’re in need of additional support, and want to gain more clarity on the legal aspects of your specific business, you can apply to work with us in a Legal Audit Intensive.