Copyright Basics

Copyright law is a form of intellectual property law, and protects various sorts of creative works.

Intellectual property law governs who has the right to control the use and sale of information. Copyright law is a form of intellectual property law, and protects creative works such as books, movies, essays, paintings, and poetry. It also protects less obvious creative works, such as software code, choreography, and architectural plans.

What Exactly Does a Copyright Protect?

Having a copyright provides protection for original works of authorship, fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This includes literary, musical, and dramatic works, as well as photographs and graphics, audio and visual recordings, software, and other intellectual works.

In order for the work to be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression," it must be set in a form in which it can be perceived either directly or with the aid of a device.

For a literary or artistic work, this usually means that it is written on some sort of paper or stored in a computer. For a musical work, this usually means that it is either the phonographic recording or the sheet music.

An example of something that is not "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" is an improvised speech that has not been written or recorded. Also, mere ideas do not have copyright protection; the idea must be fixed in a tangible form for copyright protection to be created. So someone's idea for an amazing new Broadway musical about dancing cats would not be enough. The person must first actually write the music and script in order for it to receive even minimal copyright protection.

What Rights Does a Copyright Owner Have?

Under the Copyright Act of 1976, the owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to control the reproduction, distribution, performance, and display of the work, and the preparation of derivative works. Original ownership of a copyright is granted to the work's author.

An important exception to this is when the creator of the original work did so during the course of employment. In that case, the copyright is typically owned by the employer, not the employee.

The same is true if the creator is hired by someone for the explicit purpose of creating that work, in which case the work becomes a "work for hire." The owner of the copyright is normally the person who hired the creator (absent a contractual agreement saying otherwise).

Ownership of a copyright, as with ownership in other forms of property, can be transferred. A transfer of the owner's exclusive rights must be made in writing. A transfer of less than the owner's exclusive rights does not need to be in writing.

Registering Your Copyright

Copyright protection attaches as soon as the work is fixed in a tangible medium. It is not necessary to file for copyright registration.

There might, however, be important advantages to registering a copyright. For works of U.S. origin, registration is required before an infringement suit may be filed. An owner who made a timely registration of the work can potentially receive statutory damages for infringement beyond any award of actual damages and profits.

A copy of the registration can be recorded with the U.S. Customs Service to prevent the importation of unauthorized copies, as well.

In order to enforce your copyright protections and sue an infringer in federal court, you will need to have registered your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, the federal agency charged with copyright administration.

Fortunately, the process for registration is fairly straightforward. In many cases, it can be completed online through the Copyright Office's online portal and does not require the assistance of an attorney. Depending on the type of work you seek to register (perhaps a literary work, software, video, and so on), you will be required to send or upload a copy of the work to the Copyright Office.

You will need to pay certain fees in connection with your copyright application. While these tend to vary from one year to the next, and depend on the precise manner of your registration, they are typically no more than a few hundred dollars.

Whether or not the copyright is registered, the author should begin using the copyright symbol (©) immediately as a method of informing others that he or she intends to exercise control over the production, distribution, display, and or performance of the work. Such a method of notification is not currently a requirement of the copyright law, but it does prevent others from claiming a defense of innocent infringement.

Talk to a Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Get Professional Help

Talk to a Intellectual Property attorney.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you