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Copyrights are protections granted to authors, artists, composers, and publishers for their original creative works. The purpose of copyright protection is to encourage artists of all kinds to create new intellectual and creative works, which will promote human knowledge and development. The United States bases its copyright law on British common law and statutory law. Copyright protection was considered important enough to be included in the Constitution, and Congress passed the first copyright statute in 1790. The laws have been amended a number of times since, driven largely by changing technology.

A copyright gives the author or owner of the work the exclusive right to reproduce or copy the work, prepare new works that derive from the work, and publicly perform or display the work. The copyright owner can sell, license, or transfer all or some of his or her rights to the work. For example, an author may sell the right to adapt his novel into a screenplay to a production company, the right to publish a paperback edition to a publisher, and the right to translate the book into French to another publisher.

Copyright protection arises automatically when a work is created. An artist does not have to register his or her creation, or place a copyright symbol, "©," on the work, for it to be protected by the copyright laws. If a work is prepared over a period of time, the part of the work that is completed on a particular date is protected as of that date. A work created today would receive copyright protection for the life of the creator plus seventy years. Some works prepared for hire (for an employer) or published anonymously or under pseudonyms are protected for ninety-five to 120 years. Works that were created before 1978 have different copyright durations. Due to the complexity of copyright regulations, an intellectual property lawyer with experience in copyright law should be consulted.

To be protected, a work must be expressed in a tangible, physical form; it must exist on paper, audio or videotape, computer disk, canvas, or other materials. The notes for an improvisational speech scribbled on a piece of scratch paper may be eligible for copyright protection, but the speech itself would not be eligible, unless it was transcribed. A recording of the speech also could be copyrighted. Works that can be copyrighted include:

  • Literary works such as books, plays and poems
  • Musical works
  • Pantomimes
  • Choreographic works
  • Pictorial and graphic works such as photographs, paintings and drawings
  • Sculptures
  • Audiovisual works such as motion pictures and animations
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural designs
  • Computer software
  • Databases
  • Web pages
  • Toy design

The work must be original in order to receive copyright protection. This means that there must be something new about the work that sets it apart from previous similar works. If the variation is more than trivial, the work will receive copyright protection. Originality is not dependent on the work's meeting any standard of aesthetic or artistic quality; a work need not be fine art or a great literary work to be copyrightable.

At least some creative effort must have gone into the work for it to be copyrightable. For example, a standard calendar is not considered creative enough to copyright, but the original photographs illustrating the calendar would be protected.

Copyright law protects the expression of a creative idea, but not the idea itself. For example, an author can copyright her novel about a group of animals that find their way home over a long distance, but she cannot copyright the idea of a group of animals finding their way home, because that would hamper one of the underlying purposes of copyright law, which is to encourage creativity. The author also could not copyright stock fictional characters, such as the good cop and the bad cop. Additionally, writing style, such as Virginia Wolff's stream of consciousness style, cannot be copyrighted.

Many types of information are considered to be in the public domain, and for that reason, may be used freely by anyone without infringing a copyright. Standard calendars and height-and-weight charts, US government documents and works whose copyright has expired are in the public domain. Facts, including scientific and historical information and the news of the day, may not be copyrighted. Ideas, including procedures, processes, and systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles and discoveries are not eligible for copyright protections. In all of these cases, however, if an author adds his or her own description, explanation or illustration of the fact or process, the author's work would have copyright protection.

Titles and names, such as business names or book titles; words and short phrases, including slogans; and familiar symbols and designs are not normally protected by copyright, but rather by other types of intellectual property law such as trademark. However, recent authority suggests that even very short phrases may be copyrightable, if they are sufficiently creative. The law on this point, at present, is somewhat ambiguous.

Learn More: Reasons to Contact an Intellectual Property Attorney

To read and print out a copy of the checklist, please follow the link below.

Reasons to Contact an Intellectual Property Attorney

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DISCLAIMER: This site and any information contained herein are intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek competent counsel for advice on any legal matter.

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