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Copyright Tips

Copyright Tips You Should Know

Copyright protection got you confused? You aren't alone. U.S. copyright law is as old as the Constitution itself (we are talking the year 1787 here). However, there are certain principles that you should know that can help you gain a better understanding of how and when your literary, artistic, or musical material is subject to copyright protection. For more information, visit FindLaw's Intellectual Property section.

Notice of Copyright

Always put a copyright notice on your creation, especially before you send it to somebody, with your name and the date. For example:

  • © 2008 FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters business
  • Copyright 2008 FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters business

Remember, the notice isn't required for works created after March 1989, it's still a good idea to give notice to warn people that the work belongs to you.

Although publications written by employees of the U.S. government are not copyrighted, you can't claim a copyright on them. Instead, you should state in your copyright claim that you aren't claiming copyright on them. For example:

  • Copyright 2008 FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters business. Copyright claimed as to all material exclusive of U.S. Government topographical maps.

Again, this isn't required for publications after March 1, 1989, but the Copyright Office states that it should be included for current publications as well.

When you are claiming protection for something you have recorded, the copyright symbol isn't used. Instead use the letter "P" in a circle. The P in the circle symbol represents the copyright-law term "phonorecord," which includes LPs, 45s, (remember those?), eight-tracks, cassette tapes, CDs, and the like.

Copyright Material

A few simple principles here: You can't claim a copyright on ideas, facts, familiar symbols or designs, like K or L or a smiley face. Also, a work may be copyrighted if it is original, shows minimal creativity, and is fixed in some tangible form of expression that can be seen or heard.

Rights Acquired

With a copyright, you control the use and copying of your creative work, the right to distribute it, display it, or perform it. A copyright owner also holds rights to derivative works, such as adapting a novel for a movie, or reinterpreting a song like the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" as a country song.

Copyright owners have the right to control public performance and display includes activities like staging the musical "Rent" at the local theater, or broadcasting any portion of a football game at any time without the prior express written consent of the National Football League.

But if you want to stage the opera La Boheme, you most likely are not infringing any copyright (the work is probably too old and might not have been copyrighted in the first place).

Transferring Rights

You have the right to transfer your exclusive rights or any portion of those rights to another person, but the transfer must be in writing with your signature. You can also put them into a trust or in valid will.

If you want to "rent" your work, you can do that by giving he or she a license. A license is a contract granting permission to do something; your driver's license is, in a way, a contract with your state.

International Protection

Whether your copyright is good in another country will depend on that country's own copyright laws. Some countries enter into treaties with one another to protect foreign copyrights.

Registering Your Copyright

Your copyright must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office before you can seek a court order to stop someone from infringing it. Your registration takes effect as soon as the Copyright Office receives all of the required items in an acceptable form, even if it takes a long time for the application to be processed.

Send in a completed application form, a filing fee, and a copy of the work being registered to the Copyright Office, located at the Library of Congress. The copy of your work (which the government calls a "deposit") is not returnable. It will belong to the Library of Congress. There are other rules and regulations you must follow including how to mail the deposit.

Special Deposit Requirements

Some kinds of works have special requirements for the deposit. For example, if you are trying to register a computer program, whether it is published or not, you need to deposit one copy in source code that is visually perceptible-that means a print-out. If your program is fewer than fifty pages, you must deposit a print-out of the entire program. If your program is longer than that, you must send the first twenty-five pages of the program and the last twenty-five pages. Additional rules exist for deposits in CD-ROM format.

Searching Copyright Information and Getting Legal Help

You can always search the Copyright Office's records of copyright and registration online. However, a good first step in making sure your artistic work is protected is to contact a lawyer. An experienced business and commercial law attorney will be able to guide you through this often difficult process.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified business attorney to help you identify how to best protect your business' intellectual property.

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