Copyright Copyright Basics: Registration, Protection & Notice

This article will provide you with a basic of what a copyright is and what works are protected by copyright, how long protection lasts and the limitations of what registration covers. This knowledge will help you when reading information on how to register a copyright.

What is a copyright? Why do we need copyright protection?

A copyright is a legal protection granted by government to protect the creator of an "original work of authorship." A new song, book, photo or drawing is usually referred to as a "work" in legal language and, in order to be protected, it must be sufficiently original. A short phrase consisting of a few words that someone else might use cannot be copyrighted. Your 2,000 word essay reflecting your personal impression of a trip to a famous museum would qualify for being a sufficiently original work.

In the United States, these works include literary and dramatic works, musical plays and songs, intellectual works and certain other creative works that are recorded in a permanent format and which may or may not be published for the public to see or hear. Copyrights are granted in order to stimulate creativity in society. If no protection was provided to creative individuals to allow them to exclusively derive the financial benefits of their efforts, creativity would cease. A musician might not spend the time and money recording and perfecting a beautiful song in a quality music studio if the public could simply copy and distribute that song for free the moment it was released. An author might not spend months revising a great manuscript if the eventual release of a book could be distributed for free online without the author being able to derive compensation for his or her efforts.

What rights are given to a copyright owner?

The Copyright Act of 1976 provides exclusive ownership and rights to the creator of of something that is original. The owner of a copyright may reproduce the work and also prepare "derivative works" (variations or enhancements of the work), distribute the copies of the work and display the work publicly. The owner of a copyrighted work can prevent others from making copies, performing the work (such as a complicated dance) or using it in any other manner without the author's express permission. Minors are permitted to own copyrights, however, state laws will typically regulate the manner in which business is handled with minors.

Owning a copyright will allow you to prevent someone else from copying your work, selling it or using it without your permission. The term "infringement" refers to the unauthorized use of your copyrighted work. Having a copyright makes it much easier to bring and successfully prosecute a lawsuit for infringement against those people who are making money from your work without your permission.

What types of works are protected by copyright law?

There are several different categories of works that can be protected by copyright law:
  • Literary works, such as novels, poems, fiction, articles or other prose
  • Musical works, musical scores and accompanying words or lyrics
  • Dramatic works, such as for television including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works, such as those performed in public
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings and song writings
  • Architectural works, designs and drafts, etc.
The above categories are basic groupings which should be perceived in a broad manner. Different types of creative works can be covered by more than one copyright category. For example, a map can be registered for a copyright as a "pictorial, graphic and sculptural works" or as a design.

When does copyright protection begin? Can I copyright an idea?

Copyright protection for an original work of authorship begins the moment that inspiration is created and affixed in a physical, tangible form. Examples include written words on a pad of paper, paint on a canvas, music that is recorded on a cassette and a movie that is recorded on videotape or a DVD. The physical format required for copyright does not require the work be readable immediately with the naked eye and can use the aid of a machine or device such as a computer with a compact disc player. Copyright law only protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. The idea must be expressed in some physical or tangible manner.

Do I need to register a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office?

While copyright registration is not required for protection of your work, you will need to register your copyright if you want to commence a copyright infringement lawsuit and sue for damages. In addition, if a work has been registered in a timely fashion, additional statutory damages may be awarded which may make bringing a copyright infringement lawsuit worthwhile. But there are additional advantages of filing a copyright. Doing so will establish a public record with the Library of Congress that gives the world notice that your work belongs to you alone. The "poor man's copyright" which consists of sending yourself a sealed letter with your work inside does not provide any benefit other than establishing an early date which can prove that you created a work. Registration will still be required in order to start a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

Can two or more people own a copyright?

If there is more than one author for an original work of authorship, it is considered a "joint work" and the authors are co-owners of the copyright. Joint authors can agree to have the copyright be owned by only one of them if so desired. There are also special laws regarding collective works or periodical (like monthly columns in a magazine) and is beyond the scope of this introductory article.

What is a "work for hire?" Does my employer own my work product?

The legal term "work made for hire" or "work for hire" is a work that is commissioned. An artist or creator is paid to generate something original with the intention that the resulting work product be owned by the person or company paying the creator. The same concept is applied in an employment relationship. The work product of an employee, if subject to copyright law, is most frequently owned by the employer.

How long does copyright protection last?

As a general rule, any work that was created after January 1, 1978 has copyright protection lasting for the lifetime of the author plus an additional 70 years after the author's death. If there is a copyright registered on joint work (two or more people registering a copyright together), the copyright protection will last from the date of creation until 70 years after the date that the last surviving author dies. For an anonymous work or a work made for hire, copyright protection lasts for 95 years from the year that the work was first published or for a length of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works that were first published prior to 1978, the duration of copyright protection varies and depends upon several factors that are beyond the scope of this article and best to ask an experienced copyright lawyer.

Do I need to use the "C in a circle" copyright notice?

Copyright notice is no longer required but it is beneficial and informs the public of essential information: it identifies the work as being protected protected, provides the copyright owner and shows the year of first publication. In the event of a lawsuit, a defendant cannot claim innocent infringement, that he or she did not know that the work was subject to copyright and protected. The form of the notice should contain the copyright symbol © followed by the year of the first publication of the work and the owner. For example © 2008, John Smith.
Intellectual Property
Computer Law
About author
Michael Wechsler
Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.


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