The idea of protecting copyright was a response to the introduction of the printing press and the subsequent economic importance of printed works. Prior to government regulation, authority over printing works was held by a guild of printers. It’s important to understand that the original philosophy of copyright was different than we understand it today. Copyright was a form of whitelist censorship. Free speech was not part of the law, and printing, which was the dissemination of information, was not allowed without expressed consent from the authorities.
But by the 18th century, free speech had increasingly been considered a human right, particularly here in the States. That philosophical shift, however, leads to a difficulty- if people are free to write without censorship (“copyright” in the older terms), then they could copy works not their own. Copyrights then became about protecting the author’s right to maintain control over his work, as opposed to controlling who gets to publish a work.
The British Statute of Anne (1710), the first governmental regulation of copyrights, was the influence for the US Copyright Act of 1790. The Copyright Act of 1790 set copyright for 14 years, with the option to renew it once, and covered books, maps, and charts. The Copyright Act of 1831 changed the term of copyright to 28 years, and added musical compositions to the list or protected works. Paintings and drawings were not covered until 1870.
Copyright protects expressions of ideas, not the ideas themselves. For example, a paper describing a theory is copyrightable. The theory itself is an idea and not copyrightable. Someone else may freely right about the theory in their own words without infringing.
A common misconception is that copyright protects an author’s ideas. It does not. Copyright protects the copyright holder’s rights in the tangible expression of an idea, i.e., an author’s “original work of authorship” in a fixed medium.
Common categories of works that can be protected by copyright include works of the visual arts, literary works, audio recordings, musical performances, and audiovisual works. These categories include pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.
There are also several subcategories of works that can be protected, which one might be less likely to associate with copyright. These include computer code, databases, choreography, and architecture.
Copyright exists upon the creation of a qualifying work in a fixed medium. However, protection without registration is limited, and there are significant advantages to registering your copyright, including filing a lawsuit for copyright infringement under the Copyright Act. In order to do so, an author must have registered their copyright, which as of March 2019, has been clarified by the U.S. Supreme Court to require that one complete the registration process, not just simply file an application.
The Copyright Office provides an online system for copyright registration, whereby an author can register one or multiple copyrights at a time. It is important to consult with copyright counsel to help you strategize your copyright registrations because, in some cases, there are benefits to filing group applications or multiple works as a unit of publication, compilation, or collective work.
In addition to submitting identifying information concerning the work(s) to be registered and biographical information for the author, a filing fee and deposit material must also be submitted. And, the claimant must adhere the to the particular formatting requirements for deposit material, which vary depending on the type of work(s) the author seeks to register.
The Copyright Office may communicate with you during the examination process, and it is important to timely respond to inquiries. Failure to do so may result in a refusal to register the applied for copyright. If a copyright is registered, you or your counsel will receive a copyright registration certificate by mail.
The owner of copyright has the exclusive right to reproduce the work in copies, prepare derivative works, distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, perform or display the work publicly, and perform the work publicly by means of digital audio transmission. The owner also the right to authorize others to exercise these exclusive rights, subject to certain limitations. See Circular 1: Copyright Basics
- Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries
- Works not fixed in a tangible form, such as certain choreographic works, or an improvisational speech.
- Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
- Familiar symbols or designs
- Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring
- Mere listings of ingredients or contents
For more information, see Circular 33.
The copyright belongs initially to the author of the work. If more than one person creates a single work, as in multiple songwriters collaborating on one song, all the authors are considered joint authors, and have an indivisible interest in the work as a whole.
An exception is a “work made for hire”. In such a case, the party hiring the author is considered the author and copyright owner. There are two situations where this may apply: 1) the work is created by an employee as part of the employee’s regular duties, 2) an individual and a hiring party enter into an express written agreement that a work is commissioned as a work for hire. For more information, see circular 30: Works Made for Hire.
Since copyright laws change, and aren’t considered retroactive, the answer is different depending on when the work was created. Since Jan 1 1978, the term of copyright is the life of the author plus seventy years after the author’s death, or seventy years after the last surviving author’s death if multiple authors are named.
The general rule is to seek permission from the copyright owner. For more information how to get permission, see Circular 16A: How to Obtain Permission.
There are some limitations on the exclusive rights of a copyright owner, which make certain uses permissible without obtaining permission. One of these is known as fair use, a legal doctrine promoting freedom of expression. For more information, read the Copyright Office’s Fair Use Index.
Copyright belongs to the author, or the author’s heirs or assignees. If you own the rights to the work, it can be registered. Simple possession of a work you didn’t author will not qualify you to register the work.
Yes. Any work protected by U.S. copyright law can be registered, including works originally from other countries, and regardless of an author’s nationality.
The Copyright Office is the official U.S. body responsible for registering copyrights. Copyright functions were centralized within the Library of Congress in 1870, and the Copyright Office became a separate department in 1897. The official website is Copyright.gov.
The US Copyright Office publishes documents called circulars, which provide authoritative information to a general audience. Readers will see these circulars referenced in many of the FAQs.
Creative Commons is meant to be a type of copyright licensing between the “all rights reserved” of the federal copyright, and nothing at all. There are various levels of Creative Commons License that can be chosen: Attribution, Attribution-ShareAlike, and Attribution-NoDerivs. You can find more information on the Creative Commons page here.
Public domain means no one specific author owns the work any longer. Usually because the author has died and the requisite amount of time after the author’s death has transpired. As such it may be used by anyone without permission.