A copyright is an exclusive property right in an original
work of authorship. Copyrights are available for both published
and unpublished works.
Copyright may effectively protect a unique expression of an idea.
Copyright does not protect the idea itself.
What Works May Be Copyrighted?
Almost any type of work may be copyrighted: literary works
(including computer programs and databases); musical works (including
accompanying words); dramatic works (including accompanying music);
pantomimes and choreographic works; pictorial, graphic, and sculptural
works; motion pictures and other audiovisual works; architectural
works; and sound recordings.
To be protectable under copyright, a work must be fixed in a
tangible form of expression. Examples of works that are not protectable
are: choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded,
or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been
written or recorded.
Titles, names, familiar symbols, type styles, and listings of
ingredients or contents are not protectable by copyright. Ideas,
procedures, methods, concepts, etc. are also not protectable
by copyright. However, some of these may be protectable through
other mechanisms, such as patent or trademark.
Also not protectable are works consisting entirely of common
information that contain no original authorship. Examples of
these are standard calendars, height and weight charts, and lists
or tables taken from public documents or other common sources.
What Rights Does A Copyright Provide?
A copyright gives the copyright owner the exclusive right
to do the following:
To reproduce (copy) the copyrighted work;
To prepare derivative works (modifications) based on the copyrighted
To distribute copies of the copyrighted work;
To perform the copyrighted work publicly;
To display the copyrighted work publicly; and
In the case of sound recordings, to perform to work publicly
by digital audio transmission.
There are certain limitations on the copyright owner's exclusive
rights. The primary limitation is the doctrine of "fair
use." This doctrine is described briefly below.
The copyright owner may transfer any of or all of the exclusive
rights of copyright to another by selling them or licensing them.
A copyright may be bequethed by will. A copyright may also be
pledged as collateral for loans.
Who Can Claim Copyright?
Copyright protection arises immediately upon creation of
the work. The copyright vests in the author of the work. The
author may be the individual person or persons who create the
work, or it may be the corporate employer of those persons. Just
because one party paid the creator for creating the work does
not necessarily give the hiring party ownership of the copyright
in the resulting work. One of the most problematic areas of copyright
law is determining when an employer is the "author"
of the work. If the employer is not the "author" of
the work, but is to own the copyright, the employer must obtain
an assignment of the copyright from the creator.
Mere ownership or possession of a book, manuscript, painting,
or other copy or phonorecord does not give the possessor any
right in the copyright. The transfer of ownership the in any
material object that embodies a protected work does not of itself
convey any rights in the copyright.
A copyright exists from the moment a work is created no publication
or registration or other action in the Copyright Office is required
to obtain copyright protection. However, there are certain advantages
to registration with the Copyright Office. In addition, there
are certain advantages to placing the copyright notice on a work,
particularly if the work is published so that the work is widely
How Long Does Copyright Last?
For most works created on or after January 1, 1978, copyright
protection extends for the length of the author's life, plus
an additional 50 years after the author's death. For works whose
author is a corporate entity, the duration of copyright is 75
years from publication, or 100 years from creation, whichever
For works first published on or after March 1, 1989, use
of the copyright notice is optional, but is highly recommended.
Before March 1 1989, the use of the notice was mandatory on published
The use of the copyright notice is the responsibility of the
copyright owner, and does not require advance permission from,
or registration with, the Copyright Office.
The copyright notice generally consists of:
The symbol © (or the word "copyright");
The year of first publication; and
The name of the copyright owner.
For a phonorecord, the © is replaced with the letter "P"
in a circle.
Registration of a copyright does provide certain benefits:
Registration establishes a public record of the copyright claim.
If registration is made before or within five years of publication
of the work, registration will establish prima facie evidence
in court of the validity of the copyright and of the facts stated
in the certificate.
If the registration is made within three months after publication
of the work, or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory
damages and attorney fees will be available in court actions
to the copyright owner. Otherwise, only an award of actual damages
and profits is available to the copyright owner.
Copyright registration also allows the owner of the copyright
to record the registration with the U.S. Customs Service for
protection against the importation of infringing copies.
Registration may be made at any time within the life of the copyright,
and is required before filing a lawsuit for infringement of the
A deposit must accompany the registration application. For most
published works, the deposit consists of two complete copies
of the work. For unpublished works, only one copy need be deposited.
For some works, it is possible to deposit only certain portions
of the work.
Copyright registration is a rather straightforward process. The
correct form must be used. These forms are available from the
U.S. Copyright Office. The forms (and much useful information)
may be downloaded from the U.S. Copyright Office computer website
(http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright). In addition, the forms may
be ordered by telephone. The telephone number from which forms
can be requested is (202) 707-9100. The Copyright Office general
telephone number is (202) 707-3000. The mailing address is: Copyright
Office, LM 455, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20559-6000.
Although the registration process is straightforward, there are
some entries on the forms that may pose some unique uncertainties.
Among these are ensuring that the correct author is named.
Violating any of the copyright owner's exclusive rights is
copyright infringement. The copyright law provides both civil
and criminal penalties for copyright infringement. Therefore,
an infringer may be forced to stop the infringing activities,
to pay damages to the copyright owner, or may even be sentenced
to jail for the infringement.
There are, however, certain limitations on the copyright owner's
exclusive rights. The most significant limitation in most cases
is the doctrine of "fair use."
There is no clear definition of fair use in the copyright law.
The copyright law lists factors that are used to determine if
a particular use is a fair use. These factors include: the purpose
and character of the use; the nature of the copyrighted work;
the amount and substantiality of the portion used; and the effect
on the market for or value of the copyrighted work. What creates
copyright infringement is a complicated question that depends
heavily on the specific facts of each case.
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