Copyright law varies around the world. Since I live in the US and am not familiar with copyright laws in other countries, this post will cover the basics of US copyright law. I’m a writer, not a lawyer, so don’t rely on anything I say if you have a legal issue over copyright.
My goal is just to give a brief overview of how copyright works for materials written and published in the US today. Work written before January 1, 1978 come under an earlier version of the copyright law, which is quite different.
For more information, visit the US Copyright Office online.
- 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
- architectural works
You cannot copyright titles, slogans, logos, standard information such as calendars or height and weight charts, ideas, methods, or discoveries. You can copyright descriptions or explanations of methods and other items that cannot themselves be copyrighted. Some items that cannot be copyrighted (such as logos) can be trademarked.
According to the Copyright Office, “Copyright is secured automatically when the work is created, and a work is ‘created’ when it is fixed in a copy or phonorecord for the first time.” If you write a poem on a napkin, you have created the work, and it is automatically covered by copyright. You do not have to put the copyright symbol on it. You do not have register it. You do not have to write “copyright” on it.
Of course, if anyone challenges your copyright, you must be able to prove that you created the work. That’s why many writers mail a copy of their manuscript to themselves sealed and date-stamped by the Post Office. The writers keep the unopened package to use as evidence in case their copyright is ever challenged.
Registering a publication with the Copyright Office makes it easier to defend copyright since the registration itself is a public record of the copyright claim and is evidence in your favor if you are ever involved in an infringement lawsuit. Registration is voluntary unless you sue for infringement. You must register before suing, and the amount of damages you can receive in a court case is greater if you register copyright within three months of publication. Copyright registration makes sense for books and other works that have a large income potential. It isn’t feasible for blog posts and short articles because of the time and expense involved.
“Mandatory deposit” is a stipulation of the copyright law that two copies of all “publications” be deposited with the Copyright Office for the Library of Congress, whether or not the copyright is registered. There are a number of exemptions, but essentially “publications” are works offered for sale to the general public. If you publish an e-book for sale, you are required to provide two copies for the Library of Congress. If you publish an e-book to give away on your Web site, you are not subject to mandatory deposit.
Copyright gives the authors of “original works of authorship” the right to control how their work is used. The author is the person who created the work unless it was work for hire. If the work was written for hire, the employer is considered to be the author and copyright owner.
Copyright extends for the life of the author plus 70 years. Work-for-hire copyright lasts 95 years from creation or 120 years from publication, whichever is shorter.
Next, we’ll talk about what constitutes “fair use” of copyrighted material.