What is a copyright?
Copyright is the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, or modify literary and artistic creations, which are often known simply as “works.”
What kinds of works are protected?
Works covered by copyright include books, printed materials, software, dramatic and musical compositions, movies, sound recordings, photographs, paintings, sculptures and several other categories. There is no requirement that the work be useful or have value, but the work must reflect some element of creativity and must have been independently created by the author(s). Some categories of subject matter are expressly excluded from copyright protection, such as trademarks, book titles, short phrases, and most utilitarian articles (such as the design of a woman’s dress). Importantly, copyright protection is limited to the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. If you want to protect an idea, you must get a patent or keep the idea secret!
How do I get a copyright?
Easy. A copyright arises at the moment the creation is fixed for the first time in a tangible medium, i.e., the moment the work is reproducible. This copyright exists even if the work is not published and even if not registered with the Copyright Office.
How long does it last?
Generally, a copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. For works made within the normal scope of employment, a copyright lasts 95 years from date of publication or 120 years from creation – whichever is shorter.
Who owns a copyright?
The copyright is owned, at least initially, by the author of the work unless it is a “work made for hire” in which case the hiring person or company owns the copyright. A work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment is a “work made for hire.” If a company or person hires a non-employee (e.g., an independent contractor) to create or compose a copyrightable work, and both parties agree in writing, the work will also be considered a “work made for hire.” Take careful note that if a business hires an independent contractor to create a work such as photographs, software or a website, and the parties do not agree in writing that “work made for hire” rules apply, then the independent contractor owns the copyright to the work, not the commissioning party. Absent an express written agreement confirming a “work made for hire” status, the independent contractor may freely copy the commissioned work and even sell the copyright to someone else without permission of the hiring party!
Enforcing Your Copyright.
To prevail in a copyright infringement claim, the plaintiff must prove ownership of a valid copyright and unauthorized copying or other prohibited use. Proving copyright infringement often involves subtle concepts, including whether the defendant’s accused work is “substantially similar” to the original. The Copyright Act makes it legal to engage in certain kinds of copying. The most important is if the user can show “fair use” of the copied material. Fair use can include limited copying for purposes of criticism, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.
Should I register my copyrighted work?
Copyright registration entails submitting a short application with the U.S. Copyright Office and paying a modest fee. Registering a copyright is not necessary, but does have benefits. A registration made within five years of creation raises a legal presumption of ownership and validity of the copyright. Registration also enables a court to award statutory damages (an amount prescribed by statute irrespective of the damages the author actually suffered) and possibly attorney fees to a prevailing copyright plaintiff. Registration also can serve as a convenient basis to secure copyright protection in foreign countries. As a general rule, registering a copyright is smart when the work is considered an important or valuable asset.
Should I mark my work with that © symbol?
Since 1989, works no longer need to bear a copyright notice to be protected under the Copyright Act. Nevertheless, it is still a good idea to mark any original work that you are interested in protecting with the word “copyright” or “©” along with the year of publication and name of the author or copyright owner. For example the copyright notice for this webpage might look like this: “© 2014 Endurance Law Group PLC.” Adding a copyright notice may discourage people from copying the work, and prevent those that do from claiming to have been an “innocent infringer.”
Endurance Law Group PLC specializes in copyright services. We would be pleased to answer any questions that you might have about copyrights and your particular circumstances.