Intellectual Property

What Does a Copyright Protect?

By Brian Farkas, Attorney
Learn what protection a copyright affords you.

If you are the creator of an original work, copyright law can help you to ensure that no one else misappropriates your creation. While copyright is automatic after you have created an original work, there are many benefits to registering that work with the U.S. Copyright Office and obtaining a formal copyright. Learn more about what copyright is, and what it protects.

The Source of Copyright Law

The basic principle of copyright protection comes directly from the U.S. Constitution. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 provides that Congress shall "promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." In other words, this provision gives Congress the power to enact legislation to give "exclusive right[s]" to "authors" over their "writings." This language has been interpreted broadly to permit copyright protection for not just authors, but for other types of creative producers, from filmmakers to software coders.

Congress enacted the Copyright Act (most comprehensively updated in 1976 with an important amendments thereafter) in order to carry out these broad intentions of the Constitution.

Pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 102, copyright protects "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression... from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device." The provision lists eight different categories of copyright-eligible works, which include literary works, musical works, dramatic works, choreographic works, pictorial works, audiovisual works, sound recordings, and architectural works.

The Copyright Act is also clear that copyright protection does not "extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work." In other words, you cannot copyright an idea for a movie—only the finished movie itself. This related back to the earlier requirement that the work be "fixed in any tangible medium of expression" such as a picture, script, or canvas.

Exclusive Rights Granted By Copyright

As you can see, copyright protection is extremely broad in terms of the many types of work it can cover. Essentially, any type of work showing even a modicum of creativity can be protected through copyright. This includes, for example, paintings, sculptures, architectural designs, choreography, illustrations, screenplays, videos, and sound recordings, among other categories.

Within the Copyright Act, 17 U.S. Code § 106 grants creators certain exclusive rights to their work, including the right to reproduce, perform, and distribute the work. In practice, this means that if you hold the copyright on your illustration, for example, then someone else cannot simply photocopy it turn it into a greeting card without your permission. This sort of conduct would constitute copyright infringement and subject the infringer to damages.

Copyright protection does not last forever. In cases of a single creator, the copyright last for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. In cases of multiple creators (e.g., a co-authored book), the copyright lasts for the lifetime of the last surviving author plus 70 years. Note that the terms of the copyrights for works created prior to 1978 will be more complex, and will depending on the legislation in place at the time they were created. Generally, it is safe to assume that works created before the 20th century are free from all copyright restrictions.

Registering Your Copyright

The question of what copyright protects is complicated. Even though creators technically hold copyrights in their works automatically, it is very difficult to truly have legal protection over that work unless it is formally registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, the federal agency charged with overseeing the administration of copyrights.

What is the point of registration? First, the law requires that you have a registration on your work filed with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to sue someone for infringement. In other words, you cannot march into court and file a lawsuit seeking to protect a nonregistered creative work. Second, copyright registration allows you to put the well-known "©" symbol on your work. This copyright symbol will immediately deter many potential infringers, who see that you are taking your intellectual property rights seriously.

The good news is that copyright registration is fairly straightforward for the vast majority of applicants. You likely will not need to hire an attorney (though you may wish to consult with one).

To begin the registration process, go to the Registration Portal of the Copyright Office's website. It allows you to select the specific type of creative work you seek to register, with such choices as literary works, visual arts, photographs, or performance. The registration process is slightly different for each of these genres, but the basic principles are the same. Each of the portals on the website will lead you to the Electronic Copyright Office (known as "ECO" for short). In ECO, you will fill out the formal copyright application. Most of the required information is self explanatory. You will need to provide your name, address, and information about the work, as well as a copy of the work itself (perhaps on CD or DVD).

The process can be a bit bureaucratic. If you find yourself uncertain about how to submit your registration application, read the helpful FAQs on the website. You may also call the clerks at the Copyright Office at (202) 707–3000.

Note that you must pay certain fees to the Copyright Office for each registration, per the published fee schedule. Fortunately, these fees are relatively nominal. Most applications will cost less than $100 in total.

In sum, copyright registration is a relatively straightforward and inexpensive process that makes sense for many artists, authors and creators who wish to obtain the full benefits of copyright protection.

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