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Copyright Protection

For more information about copyright visit the federal Copyright Office website.

What copyright does and does not protect

Copyright protects "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. The work must be original and independently created by the author. A creation can be similar to existing works as long as it is independently created without copying from someone else.

Copyright does not protect the ideas, facts, words, phrases, titles, design elements, calendars, rulers, lists, tables, and processes etc. that are the building blocks of a creative expression. The idea you have for a book isn't protected by copyright but the expression of that idea in the book is.

Copyright only covers works that are "fixed in a tangible medium of expression." The poem you create in your mind and recite at openmike night is not covered by copyright until you write it down. The work must exist in some physical form.

Copyright does not protect things that are purely functional, no matter how original and creative. Functional things are covered by patents. Some things can have both expressive and functional aspects. Only the expressive aspects are covered by copyright.

Copyright is automatic

Yes, copyright arises automatically as soon as a work is created in a fixed form.

While it isn't mandatory, registering your copyrights with the federal Copyright Office is a good idea if your works are going to be distributed, displayed, or performed publicly, or posted on the web. Registering your work creates a public record of your claim of copyright, and greatly enhances your protections should somebody infringe your copyright. Registering your work with the Copyright Office costs $45 and you can register an unlimited number of unpublished works on a single application.

Use of a copyright notice

The use of a copyright notice is no longer required under U.S. law, but use of the notice may be important because it informs the public that the work is protected by copyright. If a proper notice of copyright appears on the published copy or copies to which a defendant in a copyright infringement suit had access, then the defendant cannot claim innocent infringement because he or she did not realize that the work was protected.

The use of the copyright notice does not require advance permission from, or registration with, the Copyright Office.

The copyright notice should contain all the following three elements:

1. The symbol © (the letter C in a circle), or the word “Copyright,” or the abbreviation “Copr.”

2. The year of first publication of the work. In the case of compilations or derivative works incorporating previously published material, the year date of first publication of the compilation or derivative work is sufficient. The year date may be omitted where a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work, with accompanying textual matter, if any, is reproduced in or on greeting cards, postcards, stationery, jewelry, dolls, toys, or any useful article.

3. The name of the owner of copyright in the work, or an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized, or a generally known alternative designation of the owner.

Example: © 2006 John Doe

Rights secured by copyright

The 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to:

With some limitations, it is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of copyright. Sections 107 through 121 of the 1976 Copyright Act establish some limitations on these rights, including the doctrine of “fair use.”

These rights are all separate and each right can be sold, licensed, allowed, limited or withheld individually as the copyright owner sees fit.

The copyright is separate from the work itself. The transfer of ownership of a copyright protected work or copy of that work does not of itself convey any rights in the copyright. Mere ownership of a book, manuscript, painting, or any other copy does not give the possessor the copyright. The copyright ownership stays with the creator.

The sale of a copyright must be in writing and signed by the person selling the copyright. Even if a creator makes an outright transfer of a copyright, after thirty-five years the creator can generally get the copyright back just by asking for it. This little known provision in the law was put there to protect creators from unwise transfers of copyrights.

Duration of copyright

In general copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years for works published after 1977. There are more complicated rules for works published before 1978 and for commissioned works and works created for hire. All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain.

For further information about copyright

The above is a very basic, general and incomplete discussion of copyright protection. For more information about copyright visit the federal Copyright Office website.

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