A copyright protects the expression of an idea when it is fixed in a tangible medium. Once you put pen to paper, save a file on your computer, or click the shutter on your camera, you’re fixing your idea in a tangible medium and then it becomes protectable.
What Does Copyright Protect?
Copyrights protect artistic works such as writings in the form of poetry, literature, books, essays, blog posts, or newsletters; photos; videos; and musical compositions including separate copyrights for the sheet music and the actual recording of the performance of the song.
Benefits and Limitations of a Copyright
In the US, in order to sue someone for copyright infringement, you need to have an actual US copyright registration. Although a work is considered copyrighted as soon as it is fixed in a tangible medium, without registration from the US Copyright Office there is no protection of the work on a legal level and you cannot commence a lawsuit in the event that another uses and infringes on your work.
Having a registration before someone infringes on your copyright also means you can potentially claim your attorney’s fees and can be awarded statutory damages1 (damages award from $750 to $30,000 per work infringed) rather than having to prove the actual damages suffered which at times can be negligible or impossible to prove.
There are of course limitations to what a copyright can protect. If, for instance, a piece of art independently created was identical or similar to another, it might not be considered an infringement if it was not proven to be an intentional copy. A copyright also does not stop someone from using the information contained in a piece of work. For example, if the steps to taking an idea and turning it into a product are explained, copyright law does not stop another from using that method to create the product.
The rights in a copyright are originally owned by whomever fixes the work in a tangible medium. That is, the author of the work, the one that puts pen to paper, types on the keyboard, clicks the shutter on the camera, etc. is the rightful owner. This means that if you hire or pay someone to develop your product and create your work that is the subject of a copyright you must have a work for hire agreement in place or an assignment that assigns all rights in the copyright to you, otherwise your work is now their work.
Can Anything be Registered as Copyright?
As long as it is an original work that falls within the definition of what is copyrightable (i.e. books, poems, plays, songs, films, sculpture, photograph, or artwork) and it is fixed in a tangible medium, you can file for and register a copyright.
While the base standard for a copyrightable work is apparently straightforward, some works might not meet the defined criteria. The following are not considered original copyrightable works: titles; names; short phrases; slogans; familiar symbols or designs; variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; and mere listings of ingredients or contents.
How Long Does a Copyright Registration Last?
If created before the 1920s, intellectual property is likely in the public domain. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.
Services that Our Firm Provides to Clients Looking to Obtain a Copyright
Our firm works with clients to identify their copyrightable works, sort through the different filing options based on their specific type of copyright and help them figure out what they should file for, and how to file it. We also prepare and file the copyright application to register it at the US Copyright Office. We monitor status of the application and send and receive correspondence with the Copyright Office when necessary. Upon registration, we docket the dates and advise the client of the copyright registration, the lifespan of the copyright, and answer any other questions that they might have. If necessary, we assist our client to enforce their copyright prior to seeking judicial intervention.