(Before we start, it’s best we say this: If you have any concerns about intellectual property rights, contracts, and claiming IP right violations, please contact someone in the legal profession who specializes in this sort of thing. Here, there’s no jacket or helmet required; our chapter on the subject is intended as an explanatory guide only.)
This is a lesson every seasoned voice-actor learned a long time ago: In the eyes of the law, what’s right isn’t always fair and what’s fair isn’t always right. Nevertheless, the law is always right—for better or for worse.
It’s worth remembering because countless reams of paperwork have been generated regarding intellectual property. As defined by businessdictionary.com, intellectual property is:
“Documented or undocumented knowledge, creative ideas, or expressions of human mind that have commercial (monetary) value and are protectable under copyright, patent, service-mark, trademark, or trade secret laws from imitation, infringement, and dilution. Intellectual property includes brand names, discoveries, formulas, inventions, know-how, registered designs, software, and works of artistic, literary, or musical nature. It is one of the most readily-traded properties in the digital marketplace.”
Let’s paraphrase the essence of this. We can regard intellectual property as creations of the mind to which one has rights and for which one may (potentially) apply for a patent, copyright, trademark, etc. It would also be fair to say that, broadly speaking, this will find application in most countries of the world. In those situations where client and actor are in different countries, local laws would apply to each.
Intellectual property rights are important because, by giving away the right to what you have created (even if you were paid for recording it), you could be giving away all future benefits such as royalty payments. When and how you, as a voice-actor, grant a client ownership over your Intellectual Property (IP), can have a huge impact on your professional career and―needless to say—on your bank account.
Protect yourself from the beginning, know your clients and put some simple measures in place to keep your IP protected: Never send off your work to someone you have never worked with. There’s always the temptation to send out work to a new client just to show your capabilities and to show that you are a great person to work with. Be sure to be cautious in this situation: if someone is asking you to send recordings without any agreement in place, don’t. Clarify that YOU own the rights to the recording before sending it to the client.
How to transfer IP ownership:
Depending on the situation, your agreement, or contract, the client will own the work the moment you send it to them. That said, your contract should explicitly state that they have to formally accept the agreement before rights are transferred. If your agreement with the client is informal, it’s important you make it clear in your email that you retain full ownership of the files until they are fully paid for. The fact that you own the rights to recordings until they are fully paid for can be very useful with clients who are loathe to pay you for your work, or are late payers. Stipulate this in all your correspondence; it can mean the difference between winning and losing if things go bad and you end up in court.
If you do all of the above, but the client ignores you and uses your work anyway, do your best to work matters out. If that fails, use this document; it is a guide created by the U.S. Department of Justice, and outlines exactly what you can do to protect and defend your IP rights.