Copyright law grants certain exclusive rights to persons who create original works of authorship. This critical tool for creative professionals offers protection over a wide variety of intellectual works: literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and more. Copyright protection is available to both works that are formally published (such as a commercially available novel or movie) and those that remain unpublished (such as a poem or photograph sitting on the creator's nightstand).
Copyright law in the United States is governed by the Copyright Act of 1976. Anyone who creates original works can register them with the U.S. Copyright Office, which is the federal agency charged with administering copyrights.
A copyright examiner from that office will review the registration application to ensure that the proposed copyright fits within the scope of materials that can be protected.
There are eight categories of works subject to copyright, as listed in 17 U.S.C. § 102:
These categories should be viewed broadly. For example, computer programs and most "compilations" can be registered as "literary works"; and maps and architectural plans can be registered as "pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works."
In addition to the question of whether a work fits within the legal categories, there are other requirements that the Copyright Office will consider in evaluating whether a work merits protection: creativity, originality, and "fixing" in a tangible medium.
The creativity requirement is fairly minimal. There is no bar that one must clear regarding quality. No one will judge whether a creative work "deserves" protection based on its workmanship, detail, or contribution to a particular field.
If, for example, you wish to register your painting for copyright protection, there is no panel of art historians at the Copyright Office who will decide to deny it based on lack of technical skill. Even a terribly written, juvenile, two-minute-long piece of sketch comedy can be registered as a "dramatic work." The work simply requires a minimal spark of creativity.
The originality bar is also low. A work cannot be copied from someone else, which of course makes sense. (You couldn't obtain a copyright on Harry Potter, since someone else wrote it.)
Mere facts, well-known phrases, or lists of names, in and of themselves, are not subject to copyright protection. However, if these items are organized or expressed in an original manner, then a copyright would protect that organization or expression. (The fact that America won its War for Independence cannot be copyright-protected; the specific arrangement of this fact in a sentence within a history book that you wrote, however, could be subject to copyright protection.)
Finally, to be eligible for copyright protection, a work must be more than an idea. It must be "fixed in any tangible medium of expression," which medium "can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device," in the language of the Copyright Act.
In the most basic terms, this requirement simply means that works that qualify for copyright protection must be written down, or otherwise reduced to some physical form.
Examples could include an audio recording, a video, or a string of computer code that comes to life with the aid of a machine. Merely devising an idea for a movie, a concept for a book, or a fun plot of a video game is not sufficient. You must actually do something with those ideas, make them tangible, in order to obtain a copyright.