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What is a Copyright and How Does it Work?

copyright-protectionIf you create something, it’s always a good idea to take steps to protect your intellectual property, especially if you intend to make money from your work in some way. One type of intellectual property protection that is important for your original written or artistic works is a copyright. But before you get started with the process of applying for copyright protection, it’s important to understand what a copyright is and what it can do for you. The following information is intended to help you understand what is a copyright, and how does a copyright work.

What is a Copyright?

A copyright is a way of legally protecting your original work from being used in ways that you have not approved. Copyrighting your work gives you control over who reproduces, distributes, performs, or displays the tangible forms of your expression.

When Can You Claim a Copyright?

Just because you own an original piece of work does not give you a right to copyright. Only the author or creator of the original work may claim a copyright.

An exception to this rule comes into play when an employer hires an employee to create an original work. When a work is made for hire, the employer, not the employee, will be considered the original creator, and thus gains all rights to copyright. If two or more people collaborate on a joint work, they will be considered co-owners of the copyright, unless they contract otherwise. In some states, minors are also allowed to claim copyrights. You can discuss how to protect your original work with a copyright by consulting with a copyright lawyer.

What Can You Protect with a Copyright?

There are eight categories of copyrightable works, according to the United States Copyright Office. The eight categories are as follows:

  1. Literary works
  2. Musical works
  3. Dramatic works
  4. Pantomimes and choreographic works
  5. Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  6. Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  7. Sound recordings
  8. Architectural works

These categories are broad in scope and cover an expansive array of different creations. For example, computer programs can be considered “literary works” while maps fall under “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.”

What Can’t You Protect with a Copyright?

For a work to be copyrightable, it needs to be unique and in a fixed, tangible form. This means that impromptu speeches or dances cannot be copyrighted because they have not been written down or recorded. Very short works, such as titles, names, and phrases are generally not copyrightable either. You cannot copyright style, such as typographic ornamentations, colorings, or lists of contents. Familiar symbols or designs, such as the Star of David, are not copyrightable. Works by the U.S. government are also not eligible for U.S. copyright protection.

To find out whether your work can be protected with a copyright, it’s a good idea to consult an intellectual property or copyright lawyer.

How Long are You Protected by a Copyright?

Copyrights typically last for the duration of the author’s life plus an additional 70 years after the author’s death. If the work was created by more than one author, the additional 70 years will start after the last surviving author’s death. If the work was made for hire, or created anonymously or under a pseudonym, the copyright will last for 120 years from creation or 95 years from publication, whichever is shorter.

Why to Register a Copyright

Your work is automatically protected under copyright law as soon as you create it. This means that you don’t technically have to register or file anything with the Copyright Office in order to have a copyright. However, registration provides much stronger evidence of your authorship by making a public record for it in case you get sued or sue someone else for infringement.

If you don’t register your copyright, and someone sues you, you may be limited in your ability to recover financially when you sue for copyright infringement.

How to Register a Copyright

You may register a copyright any time within the life of your copyright. You will need to file a completed application along with a copy of your work and a filing fee. You can apply with the traditional paper method, but these days e-filing is preferable for simplicity and because you will be able to receive emails about the status of your application. Filing fees and processing times are both lower when filing online.

You can register your copyright by yourself online at the Copyright Office website. However to ensure that your copyright is classified and recorded correctly, it can be especially helpful to hire a copyright lawyer to advise you through the process. You may risk losing some of the copyright protection you would otherwise have been afforded if you somehow make a mistake during the copyright registration process.