What is copyright?
Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.
What does copyright protect?
Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section "What Works Are Protected."
What can be copyrighted?
- Literary Works. This can include novels, nonfiction works, poems, articles, essays, directories, advertising, catalogs, speeches, and computer programs.
- Musical Works. This category includes both the musical notation and the accompanying words.
- Dramatic Works. This type includes plays, operas, scripts, screenplays, and any accompanying music.
- Pantomimes and Choreographic Works. Popular dance steps are not included in this type of work.
- Pictorial, Graphic, and Sculptural Works. Works included are sketches, drawings, cartoons, paintings, photographs, slides, greeting cards, architectural and engineering drawings, maps, charts, globes, sculptures, jewelry, glassware, models, tapestries, fabric designs, and wallpapers.
- Motion Pictures and Other Audiovisual Works. These include movies, videos, and film strips.
- Sound Recordings. This includes recorded music, voice, and sound effects. Thunder, animal noises, and other sounds of nature may be copyrighted by the persons who record them.
- Compilations. You can put together a collection of existing materials and the collection as a whole can be copyrighted. Some examples would be a book of poems written about trees or a list of the best cancer doctors in the U.S.
How is a copyright different from a patent or a trademark?
Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions or discoveries. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others.
When is my work protected?
Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.
Do I have to register with your office to be protected?
No. In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Copyright Registration.”
Why should I register my work if copyright protection is automatic?
Registration is recommended for a number of reasons. Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Copyright Registration” and Circular 38b, Highlights of Copyright Amendments Contained in the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), on non-U.S. works.
I’ve heard about a “poor man’s copyright.” What is it?
The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a “poor man’s copyright.” There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.
Is my copyright good in other countries?
The United States has copyright relations with most countries throughout the world, and as a result of these agreements, we honor each other's citizens' copyrights. However, the United States does not have such copyright relationships with every country. For a listing of countries and the nature of their copyright relations with the United States, see Circular 38a, International Copyright Relations of the United States.
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Karin Y. Coger, Esq.