Copyright 101

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Ever wonder what you can protect with a copyright? Or whether you really need to register your copyright in a work to protect it? Copyright can be confusing; let's break down the basics.

What Is Copyright

According to the United States Copyright Office, “Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, US Code) to the authors of ‘original works of authorship,’ including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.” What works are covered? A lot: books, plays, songs, sculptures, paintings, choreography (as long as it is somehow recorded), architectural works (both plans and buildings) and more. Basically, any creative work of authorship is covered. To be covered, your work must be original (you must be the creator) and demonstrate a modicum of creativity—the phone book, no matter how difficult, just won’t cut it. And your work cannot be functional—copyright covers creative works, while patents cover functional works. Also not covered: short phrases, logos and slogans—these fall within the ambit of trademarks.

What It Does

Under the changes made by Section 106 of the Copyright Act of 1976, the owner of the copyright reserves the right to do any of the following or to authorize others to do the same:

  • Reproduce or record copies of the work
  • Create new works based on the original
  • Distribute by sale, transfer of ownership, rental, lease, or lending
  • Perform the work publicly—this is applicable to, for example, public readings of literary pieces,  performances of plays, music (with lyrics and without), dance pieces (again, so long as the original is recorded, either on paper or video), pantomimes (same), movies, and other audio/visual works
  • Display the work publicly, which covers all of the above as well as photographs, paintings, graphics elements, sculptures, and still photos from films
  • Perform/allow public performance of sound recordings by digital or analog audio playback

How to Secure Copyright

To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be ‘fixed in a tangible medium of expression.’ This means that the work must exist in some physical form and cannot simply be an idea—copyright law rests on the distinction between idea and expression: expressions are protectable; ideas are not. Once you’ve fixed your work in a tangible medium (book, film, painting, etc.), you hold the copyright to that work—automatically. You do not need to do anything else to own that copyright, and it exists for the author’s life plus seventy years. BUT—and this is a big but—if you want to enforce your copyright, you have to register it with the US Copyright Office. Only with registration can you sue someone who copies your work, or performs, displays, or sells it without your permission. Copyright is governed solely by federal law, and that means you have to bring any lawsuit for infringement in federal court—and that means you have to register your copyright before you can bring your claim to court. (The type of work will dictate which form is used to register it.) Forms, fees, and requirements may vary, but all copyright registrations require submission of a non-refundable fee and a copy (or copies) of the work to the Copyright Office. Your registration is effective from the date all your paperwork arrives at the office in acceptable form.

This article was originally published in September 2010 and updated in October 2011.

More info:

US Copyright Office

Stanford Copyright FAQs