Copyright Basics: What Is a Copyright and Why Is It Important?

Some of the most valuable parts of a business may be its intellectual property, which includes patents, trademarks and copyrights.

Key Differences Between Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights

Patents are often used in the manufacturing and scientific industries when there is an invention of a new process, machine or design. Generally, a patent is an intellectual property right granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that, for a limited period of time, protects that invention and gives the owner the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling, or importing the invention.

Something a bit more familiar to people is a trademark. A trademark helps consumers tell the difference between the products of one company versus those of another company and generally gives legal protection to a word, phrase or symbol that is used in commerce.

Different from both patents and trademarks, a copyright protects original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible format.

What Can Be Copyrighted?

The U.S. Copyright Office states that copyright, “protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.” Copyrighted works include the following categories:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

Copyright Laws

The U.S. Copyright Office is the federal agency that handles copyright registration and other related matters. The symbol © is used to indicate an original copyrighted work. Like a trademark, copyright registration is not required to obtain protection. The U.S. Copyright Office states that “your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” However, there are several important benefits to registration, as it greatly enhances the legal protection available. For example, a valid copyright registration is required in order to bring a suit for infringement in Federal court. In addition, certain damage awards may not be available to unregistered copyright owners. When a case goes to court, the difference in award amounts can be quite substantial.

A critical element of a copyright is that it must be an original work. A copyright search can be made of registered copyrights to determine the copyright owner and to find out if there are similar books, music, art, etc. that are already registered.

To register a copyright, the author of an original work can complete and submit an application through the U.S. Copyright Office. Or, an online copyright registration service can take care of the whole process.

A Bundle of Rights

The power behind a copyright is that it is several different rights bundled together. The protection extends to published and unpublished works.

Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner the exclusive rights to do and authorize others to:

  • Reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • Distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease or lending
  • Perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
  • Perform the work publicly (in the case of sound recordings) by means of a digital audio transmission

It is illegal for anyone else to infringe upon these rights. For a business to properly protect its assets, intellectual property and especially copyrights should always be something to be aware of and taken into consideration.

LegalZoom can help you register a copyright quickly and affordably. Get started by completing an easy-to-understand questionnaire. We will assemble your copyright application and file it with the U.S. Copyright Office, and you will receive your Certificate of Registration by mail.

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This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.

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