Brenda L. Speer, LLC


Copyrights 101

Posted by Admin Saturday, March 24, 2012 5:49:00 PM

by Brenda L. Speer

What are copyrights? Copyrights are one of the four basic types of intellectual property: copyrights, trademarks, patents and trade secrets. In the US, copyrights are governed by federal, not state, law.

Original works of authorship include:

Literary works;


Musical works, including any accompanying words (compositions, or "notes on a page");


Dramatic works, including any accompanying music;



Pantomimes and choreographic works;


Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works;


Motion pictures and other audiovisual works;


Sound recordings (the recorded performance of a musical work); and

Architectural works (2D blue prints and 3D structures ).


The term is copyrightS plural, because copyrights pertain to a bundle of legal rights afforded to original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression. The copyright owner has the exclusive rights to:

Reproduce the work (make copies, thus the term copyrights);

Prepare derivative works (adaption of the original, such as a translation, or a screen play from a book);

Distribute copies (sell, give away, lend);

Perform the work publicly (as applicable, such as a play); and

Display the work publicly (as applicable, such as a sculpture).

Due to changes in the US Copyright Act over the years, the term of a copyright depends upon when the original work of authorship was created and who created it. Currently, the term for works created on or after January 1, 1978, is either for the life of author plus 70 years for an individual work, or the first to expire of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation for an anonymous work, pseudonymous work or work for hire.

After expiration of the copyright term, the work is in the public domain and may be used freely by anyone.

CAVEAT: public availability does not mean public domain.

For example, the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling is publicly available at bookstores for purchase and at libraries to borrow; however, it is not in the public domain, because it is still within its copyright term.

Although marking an original work with copyright notice is not legally required, it is for the owner best to do so. Copyright notice format appears as either © 2008 Author Name for most works, or as 2008 Performer Name for sound recordings (the "circle P" symbol for sound recordings originated in the era of the phonograph).

Under US federal law, copyrights in original works of authorship arise at the moment of creation of the work. Creation occurs once the work has been converted from an idea to a tangible expression of that idea. In other words, writing down on paper a story you’ve formed in your mind creates an original work that may be subject to copyright protection. All you have to do to have a claim of copyright in your work is to transform it to tangible expression.

However, to enforce your claim of copyright in a work, you must have a copyright registration for that work. Simplistically, a copyright registration is an admission ticket to the federal courthouse to sue for infringement. Copyrights in a work are enforced by the owner of the copyrights. Unfortunately, there are no "copyright police" who’ll do that for you. If someone infringes your copyrights, then you have to sue him to protect and enforce your rights.

Although you may file for a copyright registration in a work at any time during its copyright term, it is better to file right away. A copyright registration filed within three months of first publication of the work allows the copyright owner to seek attorney’s fees and costs and to opt for an award of statutory versus actual damages in an infringement suit. By waiting until later to file a registration, you are potentially leaving money on the table that could have been awarded to you in a copyright infringement suit.

© 2008 BL Speer & Associates

BL Speer & Associates
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