What Is Copyright?

by Team eLocal
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If you draw stuff, write stuff, film stuff or compose stuff, you likely want to be credited for your creative work. And even more than that, you probably also want the right to profit off of something you make.

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Copyright law protects original works and assigns the copyright holder various rights related to the work. If you create qualifying works, understanding copyright law can help you protect those creations.

What Is Copyright and What Does It Protect?

Copyright refers to the set of rights the creator of an original work of authorship has. It doesn't cover ideas, but it does cover your expressions of those ideas. The purpose is to protect your creative works and allow you to receive the financial rewards that might come from them. It essentially prevents other people from copying the work or creating a version of it without authorization from the copyright owner. If you write an original song, someone else can't create a slightly different version of that song without your permission, for example.

To qualify for a copyright, the work needs to be original, creative and fixed. Being fixed essentially means it's in a permanent or stable form. You can't simply say something aloud and copyright it. You would need to write or record it to give it permanency.

Once you fix your creation into a tangible expression, such as a written play script or a recorded movie, the rights go into effect automatically. The piece doesn't have to be officially published — it just needs to be fixed into a tangible form.

What Types of Works Are Protected by Copyright?

Copyright can apply to a variety of original works. Some things covered by copyright law include:

  • Books
  • Plays
  • Paintings
  • Photographs
  • Illustrations
  • Poems
  • Blog posts
  • Sound recordings
  • Musical compositions
  • Computer programs
  • Architectural works
  • Movies
  • Choreographed works

It can include other original works if they were created by you, and you didn't copy something else. The work also has to have at least a small degree of creativity.

Copyright doesn't extend to ideas, facts, systems, names, titles, concepts, procedures or other similar things. Other protection options include patents — which protect inventions— and trademarks. A trademark protects identifying features, such as phrases, designs and symbols, that help distinguish your goods or services from other sources.

Do You Have to Register a Copyright?

You're not required to register a copyright. The protections go into effect automatically as soon as you fix the work into its tangible form. However, registration gives you some additional protection opportunities. For example, you have to register your copyright to pursue litigation and seek monetary compensation for damages and attorney fees if someone infringes on your rights. Another benefit of registration is that it makes it easier for the public to find your information as the copyright owner if they want to use your works. If you want to register your copyright, you'll need to do it through the U.S. Copyright Office.

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What Rights Does a Copyright Owner Have?

Copyright law is designed to give you, as the author, full control over how the work is used, as well as the opportunity to receive financial compensation for the work. It provides the author or owner of the piece several rights, including:

  • Reproducing the work
  • Distributing copies, which might include selling, transferring ownership, renting, leasing or lending the copies
  • Making derivative works based on the original
  • Putting on performances of the work, playing a sound recording publicly or displaying the work publicly

When you're the copyright owner, you can let others use these rights through licensing or assignment. This allows you to determine how your works are used publicly or by other individuals. You can choose to give or license all the rights to someone else or only certain rights. Transferring copyright ownership to someone else must be done in writing and signed by the original owner.

How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?

The general length of copyright protection for anything created on or after January 1, 1978, is 70 years after the original author's death. If you create a work with someone else, the protection lasts for 70 years after the final author's death. Work that's created anonymously, under a pseudonym or for hire receives copyright protection for a shorter duration of either 95 years after it's published or 120 years after it's created.

Who Is the Copyright Owner?

Ownership of the copyright defaults to the person or people who created the work. If more than one person creates the work, all the creators own the work as a whole, rather than individual ownership over the parts each person created.

Ownership is also different if you create the work for hire, such as creating something as part of your regular work duties. Work for hire means you created a work for an employer, or you're commissioned by someone else and paid for the work. The employer or commissioning entity becomes the copyright owner.


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