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What Is a Copyright?

What is a Copyright?

Business owners should be aware of copyright laws. This helps them protect their intellectual property and respect the rights of others. This article provides a brief overview of:

  • What a copyright is
  • The rights of the copyright owner
  • How to register a copyright
  • The importance of including a copyright notice on your work

For more information and resources related to this topic, you can visit FindLaw's section on Copyrights.

Four Types of Intellectual Property

There are four types of intellectual property rights. Startups, entrepreneurs, and small businesses should be familiar with them.

Those four types of IP legal protections are:

Some protections are automatic, while others need an application approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Copyright Basics

Copyright is a type of intellectual property protection provided by United States laws. Copyright protection is available for original works of authorship "fixed in a tangible form." These rights exist in published or unpublished works.

The categories of works protected by copyright laws include:

  • Paintings
  • Literary works
  • Live performances
  • Photographs
  • Movies
  • Software

Copyright is a person's exclusive right to reproduce, publish, or sell their original work of authorship. Copyrighted material refers to protected types of creative works, including:

  • Literary works, including books, articles, and poems
  • Artistic works, such as paintings, sculptures, and photographs
  • Musical compositions
  • Sound recordings
  • Audiovisual works
  • Films
  • Computer software/computer programming
  • Architectural designs

It's important to understand that copyright law covers the "form of material expression," not the actual concepts, ideas, techniques, or facts in a particular work. This is why only fixed works in a tangible form receive copyright protection. Examples of works fixed in a tangible form include stories written on paper and original paintings on canvas.

A Copyright Owner's Rights

The primary goal of copyright law is to protect the work's creator's time, effort, and creativity. The copyright owner has certain exclusive rights thanks to the Copyright Act.

These exclusive rights are:

  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly
  • Distribute copies of the work by sale, lease, or other transfer of ownership
  • Reproduce the work
  • Prepare derivative works (other works based on the original work)

The copyright owner also has the right to authorize other people to do any of the abovementioned rights. The copyright owner can transfer their exclusive rights, or any subdivision of those rights, to others as well.

The Copyright Office does not have forms for these transfers. A transfer of copyright is usually done through a contract. It is not legally required for a transfer to have a record with the Copyright Office, but having a legal transaction record is often a good idea.

Works Made for Hire

If an author or artist creates a work for a company or during their employment, the creator is usually not the copyright owner. This is a work made for hire. It gives copyright ownership to the employer or person who commissioned the work.

A work made for hire occurs when an independent contractor creates a particular work for someone else. It also occurs when a work is formed by an employee while they are on the job. For example, if an employee writes articles for a company, the company is the copyright owner, not the actual writer.

Fair Use

Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows for the limited use of copyrighted material without getting permission from the copyright owner. Fair use does not infringe on their rights. Under section 107 of the Copyright Act, fair use is a legal doctrine that allows others to use original works for activities such as research, criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, and scholarship. Works in the public domain, due to expired copyrights or invalid copyrights, are for use by anyone in commerce.

Registering Your Copyright

Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is not necessary to secure copyright protection in a work; however, it does have its advantages. For example, registering your copyright provides a public record of the copyright claim.

Copyright registration is also necessary (for works of U.S. origin) before a copyright owner can file an infringement lawsuit in court. Suppose you register your copyright within three months of publishing the work or before an infringement occurs. In that case, you can recover attorney's fees and statutory damages in the event of a lawsuit.

The application to register a copyright contains three basic elements: the application form, a non-refundable filing fee, and a non-returnable deposit of a copy of your work. The best way to register your copyright is to do it online through the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO). Online filing has several advantages, including a quicker processing time, lower filing fees, and the ability to track your status online.

Once you have registered your copyright, you should use the symbol “ © “ to inform consumers and others that your copyright law protects the work. The character puts others on notice that you own control over the distribution and production of your work.

Copyright Notice

Although previously a requirement under United States law, a copyright notice is no longer required by the Berne Convention (for any work created after March 1989). However, remember that a notice of copyright can still benefit the copyright owner. First, it gives the public notice that the work is under copyright protection. It also notifies the public of the copyright holder and the year in which the work was first published.

A copyright notice also prevents a defendant from claiming an innocent infringement defense (a claim that it was an "accidental" infringement) in a copyright infringement case.

The Limits of Copyright Protection

Copyright law only covers the particular form or manner in which information or ideas manifested, known as the form of material expression. The law does not cover the actual ideas, concepts, facts, or techniques contained in the copyrighted work.

For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic books and television series are copyrighted. No one can reproduce or distribute the books or show for sale without authorization from the copyright owner. The copyright prohibits anyone else from creating similar works involving the Buffy Summers character in comic books and television shows. However, the copyright does not prohibit anyone from creating a work about a vampire slayer character in general.

Keep in mind that things not covered by copyright law could have intellectual property protection in other forms. For instance, ideas, procedures, methods, systems, and processes do not have copyright protection. They could have protection under patent law. Similarly, titles, business names, short phrases, slogans, and symbols can have trademark protections but not copyright protections.

Copyright protection lasts for the author's lifetime plus a specific period after the author's death. This period is the “life of the author" or “author's life" term. In the United States, copyright generally lasts for the author's life plus 70 years.

Learn About Your Copyright Protections: Speak With an Attorney

Your copyrighted work has value, but if you don't properly protect it you could lose what you've worked so hard to create. If you have any questions about whether your work qualifies for copyright protection or would like help registering your copyright, you may want to contact an experienced small business lawyer in your area who specializes in intellectual property laws.

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