What is a Copyright

The last series of posts served as an in-depth look at trademarks. This next segment of posts will delve into copyrights; starting with what is a copyright.

A copyright is a type of protection granted to authors of “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible medium. An “original work of authorship” is simply an original creation by a human author and possesses at least a minimal degree of creativity. The phrase, “fixed in a tangible medium,” means that the original work of art is captured in a sufficiently permanent medium. A sufficiently permanent medium is any work that can be perceived, reproduced or communicated for more than a small amount of time.

A copyright gives the owner of any copyrighted original work six exclusive rights: the right to reproduce and make copies of an original work; the right to prepare derivative works based on the original work; the right to distribute copies to the public by sale or another form of transfer, including rental and lending; the right to publicly perform the work; the right to publicly display the work; and the right to perform sound recordings publicly through digital audio transmission.

Copyright protection also provides the owner of the copyrighted work the right to authorize others to exercise these rights, subject to certain limitations. The two most common forms of transferring rights are license and assignment. If the transfer is exclusive, it must be in the form of a written agreement that is signed by the copyright owner. If it is a nonexclusive transfer, it does not need to be a written agreement. If any of the six exclusive rights are infringed upon, the owner may bring on a copyright infringement lawsuit to enforce the rights of ownership.

When it comes to what counts as an original work, the categories are not narrowly defined and should be viewed broadly for registration purposes. Examples of copyrightable works include literary works; musical works, including any accompanying words; dramatic works, including any accompanying music; pantomimes and choreographic works; pictorial, graphic and sculptural works; motion pictures and other audiovisual works; sound recordings, which are works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken or other sounds and architectural works.

Copyright protection, like any other form of protection, has a life span. In general, works created on or after Jan. 1, 1978 are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years after death. If the work a collective effort with multiple authors, it is protected for life plus 70 years after the last surviving author’s passing. For “works made for hire,” the work is protected for 95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the time it was created, whichever is shorter.

Though copyright automatically exists in an original work once it is fixed in a tangible medium, a copyright owner can enhance the works’ protection further than the six rights above. The most important step is registering the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. A later post will detail the benefits of copyright registration, and another will delve more deeply into the duration of a copyright and how to renew one.


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