At a recent beach-themed birthday party for a one-year-old girl, the cute, creative table-number “cards” were small inflated beach balls with the guests’ names written on the white panel in marker. At the party, all I looked at is what table my family had been assigned to. Back at home, though, I took another look at the ball and saw something else noteworthy: a copyright notice. It reads,
© 2010 Rhode Island Novelty, Inc.
Which, I thought, is odd.
There is nothing, to my semi-trained mind, about this item that merits copyright protection. The only aspect of it that might ever possibly in any way maybe merit protection as an original work is the selection and sequence of the colored panels… but (1) that seems beyond unlikely, and (2) there’s no way that—even if such selection/sequence were protectable—this company came up with this sequence, in 2010 or otherwise. So I looked for the copyright registration online. Because that’s what I do for fun. You know, while other people are actually at the beach.
Of course, Rhode Island Novelty can legitimately place copyright notice on a work even if it has not registered—or even attempted to register—the work with the Copyright Office… and indeed I expected to find no such registration. I expected to find no mention whatever of Rhode Island Novelty.
So imagine my surprise when a simple search for that company name returned 1,537 entries, all dated between 1989 and 2013. Whoa.
So then I had to find the one for the small beach ball, to see to just what RIN had claimed the exclusive rights. And you know what I found when I sorted the results by date?
Nothing. For the years 2010 and 2011, anyway. The company has 360 copyright registrations on file for the years 2012 and 2013. Number 361 (a two-inch “Peace Sign Kickball”) picks up back in 2009. But nothing for a beach ball in 2010. And a search for “Rhode Island Novelty” and “beach ball” turns up 17 results, but each appears to be more… complicated, more potentially worthy of copyright than the small inflatable beach ball we got. (“Fish beach ball”… “dolphin beach ball”… “US flag beach ball”… “Christmas beach ball”(?!)…, etc.)
Copyright notice, of course, is not required by U.S. law. The flip side of that coin is that use of copyright notice is the prerogative of the party that believes it has something protected by copyright law, and, according to the Copyright Office: “The use of the notice is the responsibility of the copyright owner and does not require permission from, or registration with, the Copyright Office.”
Notice serves two principal purposes: It tells the world that [you think] your work is protected; and it can defeat a defense of innocent infringement. (Maybe that’s 1.5 purposes.) But because one does not need permission to affix copyright notice, and because it is so easy to do, not every notice is correct. Not everything that has a C-in-a-circle on it is in fact someone’s intellectual property. And this is as true for beach balls as it is for popular songs.