What is a Copyright?

The idea of a copyright is often misunderstood.  Through this broad, yet succinct article, I hope to shed some light on some of the key concepts of copyright law.  If you would like further detail on any of the topics below mentioned, please feel free to contact me.

Copyright Defined

First, let's address the question of what a copyright protects or to what kinds of works it applies.  Most plainly, a copyright protects:

  • An "original work of authorship" 
  • Fixed in a tangible form of expression

An "original work of authorship" means just that.   The work must have been created and conceived independently by the author, without copying.  Do not confuse the term "original" in this sense to mean necessarily "new."  As an illustration, I may independently come up with a feature film script centering on a clumsy, carnivorous mammal that does martial arts.  So long as my script is based on original material that I created and did not copy elsewhere, I have created and authored an original work.  You see here that the idea may not be new, but the work is original.

For an elaboration on fixing a work in a tangible medium, read on.

When does a copyright become valid?

Many people erroneously believe that you must file an application with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to secure a copyright, however, this notion is false.  A copyright is established with the author of a work automatically when the work is created.   A work is “created” when it is fixed in a copy or phonorecord for the first time.

  • Copies: Material objects from which a work can be read or visually perceived either directly or with the aid of a machine or device, such as books, manuscripts, sheet music, film, videotape, or microfilm.
  • Phonorecords: material objects embodying fixations of sounds (excluding, by statutory definition, motion picture soundtracks), such as cassette tapes, CDs, or vinyl disks.

What Can You Copyright?

Copyrightable works include the following categories:

  1. Literary works
  2. Musical works, including any accompanying words
  3. Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  4. Pantomimes and choreographic works
  5. Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  6. Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  7. Sound recordings
  8. Architectural works

Here is a short list of items that are not eligible for copyright protection:

  1. Works not fixed in a tangible form of expression
  2. Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  3. Symbols or designs
  4. Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring
  5. Mere listings of ingredients or contents
  6. Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration
  7. Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (i.e. standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures, rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents)

What Can You Do With A Copyright?

Once you have a copyright, what does it mean?  Well, section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of a copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • Reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • Distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  • Perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
  • Perform the work publicly (in the case of sound recordings) by means of a digital audio transmission

It is illegal for anyone who is not the author or who does not have the authorization of the author to violate any of the rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of copyright.

Copyrights are not indefinite nor are they unlimited in scope.  Sections 107 through 122 of the 1976 Copyright Act establish limitations on these rights, such as “fair use”  or “compulsory licenses.”  These topics will however be reserved for a later discussion as the purpose of this article was the simply glaze over the general idea of a copyright, and hopefully it did just that!

After reading the above, you may ask yourself why you should bother paying the fee to pay for a copyright registration with the U.S. Copyright Office.  The answer ro your question can be found in my follow-up article, Why Should I Pay To Register My Copyright? 

© 2012 Shirley Kim, Esq.  All Rights Reserved.  The above discussion is intended to be a general commentary.  Each situation has different facts and you should hire a licensed attorney to handle your specific case.  This article is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship nor is it intended to be legal advice for your specific situation.  Should you have additional questions, please feel free to contact me.


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