Copyright Basics: What Is a Copyright and Why Is It Important? by Belle Wong, J.D.

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

A copyright gives you exclusive rights to control how your work can be used, including work that is integral to your business.

by Belle Wong, J.D.
updated February 22, 2021 · 5 min read

Most people understand that a copyright offers intellectual property protection for authors of original, creative works. This includes many digital assets.

In today's world of websites and online advertising, many businesses outside of creative industries own copyrightable works that play an important role in the marketing and operation of their businesses.

artist-sits-thinking-in-painting-studio in front of canvas

Copyright Basics

From the moment an original work is "fixed" in a tangible form—that is, set into a form where it can be experienced or used, whether temporarily or permanently—the author of that work has copyright over that work.

This copyright protection gives the author exclusive rights to:

  • Reproduce or make copies of the work
  • Distribute the work to the public
  • Make derivative works that are based on the work
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly

Because these are exclusive rights, if you hold the copyright to a work, no one can exercise these rights over the work without your permission. If you have not given your consent, any such use of the work constitutes an infringement of your copyright.

Copyright also includes the right to transfer some or all of these rights to another individual or entity. For this reason, while it's usually the author or creator who holds copyright to a work, in cases where the author has transferred some or all of the rights associated with the copyright, it's the transferee who owns these rights.

What Is Protected by Copyright, and What Is Not

Copyright is best-known for protecting literary works, music, movies, and TV shows, but the list of works that are eligible for copyright is much broader. It includes:

  • Literary works
  • Musical compositions
  • Dramatic works
  • Choreographed performance pieces
  • Art, sculpture, and other graphical or pictorial works
  • Audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

Each of these categories of copyrightable work is quite broad, so it's worth exploring whether a work you've created or own is, in fact, copyrightable. For example, a software program would qualify as a literary work, while a map would be considered a graphical work.

Certain things aren't copyrightable, however, including:

  • Ideas, concepts, and principles
  • Discoveries
  • Systems, methods, procedures, and processes
  • Titles, names, and slogans or short phrases
  • Listings of ingredients or contents
  • Familiar or common symbols and designs
  • Typographical variations

Some of the above are forms of intellectual property that are protected by other intellectual property protections. For example, while a business' name isn't copyrightable, it can be trademarked under trademark law.

Because one key requirement of a copyrightable work is that it be fixed in a tangible form, anything that is not expressed in a form that lasts longer than a short period of time—for example, an impromptu performance that is not recorded or noted down in any way—would also not be considered copyrightable.

Why Copyright Is Important for Individuals

If you're an individual who has created a copyrightable work, your ownership of the copyright over that work gives you the right to control how your work is used and consumed.

This is extremely important, particularly for creative individuals whose work forms the means by which they make their livelihood. Without these protections, it would be challenging to reap the benefits of your creative endeavors.

Beyond these practical considerations, another aspect of copyright is important to society as a whole. If artists and other creatives did not have a means to protect their work, they would have less incentive to create such original works, which would mean fewer forms of entertainment for the rest of the world to consume and enjoy.

Why Copyright Is Important for Businesses

Even if you own a business that isn't considered part of a creative industry, chances are you already hold the copyright over specific works that are integral to the running and marketing of your business.

For example, if your business has a website, then the words and pictures on your site may be copyrightable if they are original words or pictures you've created for your site.

Even if the work was created by your employee or by someone you commissioned or contracted to do the work, your business likely still owns the copyright because of what's known as the "work-for-hire exception."

Under this exception, it's not the author of the original work who holds the copyright, but the person or entity hiring the author to create that work.

The work-for-hire exception applies in two specific situations when the work is:

  • Created by an employee performing their usual duties as an employee
  • Created by an individual or entity with whom the business has expressly contracted, in the form of a written agreement, to provide a work for certain uses.

The work-for-hire exception can be particularly complex, so if you're a business owner who's looking to rely on this exception to claim copyright over work that's integral to your company's brand or marketing, it's always a good idea to check the specific criteria or consult with an intellectual property attorney.

How Copyright Protects Your Work

While copyright arises from the moment an original work is fixed in a tangible form, you should always consider registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. The following are some of the benefits of registering your copyright:

  • Your copyright becomes a matter of public record. This can be invaluable in protecting you against claims of "accidental infringement"—plus, people who wish to use your work can find you to contact you for your permission.
  • Registration of your copyright is required to bring a lawsuit against someone who infringes on your copyright.
  • If you register your copyright before an infringement takes place or within three months of the publication of your work, you will be entitled to seek statutory damages as well as attorneys' fees and other court costs.

Copyright registration is an easy process that can be done online through the Copyright Office's website, via a print application that you mail in, or through a copyright registration service.

Copyright protection exists to protect the author's rights to an original work or, where an author has transferred some or all of the rights, the individual or entity who owns the rights.

Because the categories of copyrightable work are broadly construed, many businesses will find that they own copyrights over works that are integral to running their businesses. By registering your copyright, you gain many benefits, including the right to sue for infringement.

Make sure your work is protected START MY REGISTRATION
Belle Wong, J.D.

About the Author

Belle Wong, J.D.

Belle Wong, J.D., is a freelance writer specializing in small business, personal finance, and marketing topics. Connect … Read more