What is a Copyright?

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What is a Copyright?

Copyright law in the United States is designed to give you exclusive ownership rights of your creative property. Copyrights protect original works of authorship, fixed in a tangible form, whether published or unpublished. Some examples of works that are protected by copyright include literary, musical, dramatic, artistic, or architectural work.  

Copyright laws protect a work as soon as it is created, as long as the author or creator is the first to have created it. The purpose of copyrights is to protect artistic works such as author’s novels, artist’s work of art, musician’s sound recordings, director’s movies, or software developer’s computer software, and other creators from having their work stolen, reproduced, or plagiarized. Although registration is not required to hold a valid copyright, registration makes it easier for the holder to enforce their rights to the work.

Copyrights, patents, and trademarks are often confused. Generally, copyrights protect written works while patents protect ideas, and trademarks protect brands and their logos, slogans, etc.

Learn more about the differences between trademarks, copyrights, and patents.

What Kind of Works Are Not Protected By Copyright?

Copyright protection can cover a variety of different types of works. However, the U. S. Copyright Office has been clear about a few things that are not protected.

Copyright laws do not extend to the actual concepts, ideas, techniques, or facts in the created work. An idea must be in a finished form to be considered a complete work.

Choreographic work, speeches, and other types of performances, even if original, are not subject to copyright unless filmed or otherwise documented. Fashion is also not protected by copyright laws. However, patent protection can be sought for designs.

Commonly known information cannot be copyrighted. This includes calendars, charts, directories, and other information publicly available. This also extends to names, titles, short phrases, expressions, recipes, or business names. Although these types of works are not protected by copyright, they may be eligible for patent or trademark protection.

What Happens If Someone Uses My Copyrighted Material?

Generally, if you have a registered copyright, you have exclusive rights to that intellectual property and can bring legal action against a party for copyright infringement for using your work. There is a significant limitation to the protections under copyright laws known as the doctrine of fair use. This doctrine is complicated, but in simple terms, it can permit the use of copyrighted works for research and educational purposes. To decide if the fair-use doctrine applies, courts look at the following factors:

  • The nature of the copyrighted work. More factual and less creative use of the copyrights material is more likely to fall under the fair-use doctrine.
  • The effect of the application on the value or market of the copyrighted work. The courts will examine whether the copyright owner will suffer a significant economic loss due to unauthorized use.
  • The character and purpose of the use. If the works are used for noncommercial, nonprofit, and educational purposes, fair-use is more likely to apply.
  • The substantiality and amount of the portion of work used in comparison with the work in totality. The more material of a work that gets used, the less likely it is to be protected under the fair-use doctrine.

How Much Does a Copyright Cost?

A copyright is created automatically once your creation is in a complete, fixed form. This, of course, is free. However, if you want to register a copyright and receive a copyright notice with the United States Copyright Office, this will require an application and filing fee, ranging from $35-400. Some special categories have higher application costs.

​​​​How Long Does a Copyright Last?

The length of time a copyrighted work is protected depends on several factors, such as whether it was published and the date of publication. Generally, written, original work published after January 1, 1978, lasts the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.

After the period of protection ends, the protected work becomes public domain. Once a piece of works enters the public domain, it can be used without permission.

How Do You Get a Copyright?

If you believe your work is eligible for copyright protection, registering a copyright enables you to enforce your ownership rights by filing an infringement lawsuit for violating your copyright. You must have registered that copyright first, otherwise you cannot file suit.

To register your work, you will need to have it available in a digital format to submit an application online. Once you complete the form, your claim will be publicly recorded. After the U. S. Copyright Office acknowledges your application’s receipt, process times can take anywhere from 3-6 months for online applications and 6-9 months for applications submitted by mail.