Copyright law is a concept as old as the United States itself. The Founding Fathers considered intellectual property rights so vital to our nation’s survival that they wrote these rights directly into the Constitution. Article 1, Sec. 8, Clause 8 — also known as the Copyright Clause — reads:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries…
This article provides an overview of copyright law in the U.S., including how a copyright comes into being, what kind of material is protected, and how long you can count on that protection.
Need Help with a Copyright?
So you created a brilliant new piece of intellectual property. Maybe you wrote your first novel or captured a stunning sunset with your camera. Our copyright attorneys at Robinson & Henry can assist you in successfully completing your copyright registration, keeping a watchful eye on renewals and expirations, and recovering maximum damages in the unfortunate event someone illegally profits from your original material. Call 303-688-0944 to schedule your free consultation with a member of our Intellectual Property Team.
Why is Copyright Law Important?
Copyright law serves dual purposes. Primarily, it protects original expression of ideas in various forms and media. That language is important because copyright does not protect the ideas themselves. You cannot copyright an idea. You can only copyright the actual production of the idea.
The second purpose is less obvious but no less critical. Copyright law is an impetus for creativity. The law encourages individuals and businesses to produce original works of authorship by rewarding them with certain exclusive rights to profit from their efforts.
Copyright Act of 1976
Copyright protection in the U.S. is governed almost exclusively by federal statute — specifically, the Copyright Act of 1976. With limited exceptions, the Copyright Act preempts state law.
Regulation and Administration
The U.S. Copyright Office is part of the Library of Congress. It regulates and administers copyrights under the authority of the Copyright Act. The people working here are the ones reviewing your application and determining whether it is eligible for protection under copyright law.
The office also records and maintains archives of information about registered works.
Registration with the Copyright Office is not required… unless you want to sue someone for potential infringement. You cannot recover damages unless your work was registered with the Copyright Office prior to the infringement. For this reason, it is strongly recommended that you register your copyright.
Original Works of Authorship
Copyright protects original works of authorship. Under the Copyright Act, this includes:
- literary works
- musical works, including accompanying words
- dramatic works, including accompanying music
- pantomimes and choreographic works
- pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
- motion pictures and other audiovisual works
- sound recordings
These categories are not mutually exclusive.
Certain works may fall into more than one category. For example, song lyrics that are part of a musical work sometimes may also be protected as a literary work. Additionally, a motion picture may be copyrighted as both a literary work and an audiovisual work.
Is Copyright Protection Forever?
No. The life span of a copyright depends on several factors. Those factors include whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of its first publication.
Generally, for works created after Jan. 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.
For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication, or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation — whichever expires first.
Terms for works first published prior to 1978 will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult 17 U.S. Code § 301-305.
When is your work officially copyrighted?
Copyright comes into being when your original work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. OK, but what does that mean?
The legal threshold for originality is low. If you write a book on your own, it probably required at least a minimal level of creativity, right? If so, congratulations — your work is considered original and therefore can be copyrighted.
Importantly, your work can be original without also being considered “novel” or “unique.” A work that is substantially similar, or even identical, to another work may receive copyright protection if it was not copied from the other work.
Per 17 U.S. Code § 101, a work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression when:
“its embodiment in a copy or phonorecord, by or under the authority of the author, is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration. A work consisting of sounds, images, or both, that are being transmitted, is “fixed” for purposes of this title if a fixation of the work is being made simultaneously with its transmission.”
Fixation can be writing your work down on a piece of paper, typing it into a computer, or any other act that allows the work to be perceived later by someone else.
Fixation does not include the speaking of a work unless that work was previously written down or is recorded at the time it is spoken.
If a work is fixed as it is being transmitted — such as recording a live TV segment as it is broadcast — it counts as being fixed for copyright purposes.
Other Tangible Media
Some more examples of tangible media are:
- canvas and paint
- sculpture media
- photographic film
- video and audio recordings
What is Not Protected by Copyright?
The Copyright Act does not cover the following:
- state and local landmarks
- historic preservation
- building codes relating to architectural works
- architectural works
Why You Need a Copyright Attorney
You’ve already done the hard part. You’ve harnessed your talents to create something entirely your own. The copyright attorneys at Robinson & Henry can help you make sure it stays that way, in both the short and long term. Alternatively, if someone is profiting from your copyrighted material without your permission, our copyright attorneys can assist you in fighting back to the fullest extent of the law. Call 303-688-0944 today to schedule your free consultation.