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Guide to Copyright

If you’ve put the time and effort into making some kind of creative work, be it a book or a song or a piece of computer software, you likely want to ensure that it’s protected. The law of copyright, which gives creators rights in their work to the exclusion of those who might want to copy or distribute it without permission, gives you that protection.


The granting of copyrights is governed by the Copyright Law of 1976. Under that law, copyright arises at the moment of a work’s creation. If you’re writing a book or a piece of software, you’re automatically granted a copyright the moment it’s completed. If you’re painting a picture or recording a song, copyright arises following the final brush stroke or when the song has been put on a CD. You also have the option of registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, but you do not need to in order for it to remain protected. When deciding whether or not to bother, keep in mind that registration can help you prevail in court should you ever need to sue someone for violating your copyright.

To be eligible for a copyright, works must display a minimal level of creativity and be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Things covered under the Copyright Law include:

  • Books
  • Plays
  • Poems
  • Musical works
  • Sound recordings
  • Paintings
  • Drawings
  • Photographs
  • Movies and Animations

Likewise, those things that are deemed not sufficiently creative or not fixed in a tangible medium of expression are not eligible for copyright protection. Things not covered include:

  • Facts
  • Short phrases or words (like business names or Tweets)
  • Ideas
  • Processes (like recipes; one can get a copyright in the written document detailing the recipe, but one cannot get a copyright in the recipe itself)
  • Unfixed works (like improvisational theater performances or un-recorded jam sessions)

Rights in Protected Works

Once you’ve got a copyright in something, it will last you for a long time. Copyrights persist for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. For works created for employers, copyrights persist for 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation, whichever comes first. After that time is up, the work passes into the public domain, meaning that it can be reproduced by anybody without the author’s permission.

Copyrights give owners the right to control their work. Owners and owners alone have the right to reproduce, distribute copies of, and in some cases perform or display the work. Owners are also granted the right to make derivative works, say translating a novel written in English into Spanish. Owners can partition and sell these rights however and to whomever they please. The author of a play, for instance, can sell the right to perform it publicly on a certain date at a certain time which still maintaining ownership over the rest of his rights.


A copyright is infringed if any of the exclusive rights granted to the owner are exercised by someone else without the owner’s permission. If a website downloads and posts a photograph taken by an artist without getting the artist’s permission first, for example, that website has violated the artist’s copyright in the photo.

Should a copyright infringement case go to court, the most common remedy is to get an injunction requiring the infringing party to stop violating the owner’s rights in the work. However, the law can also impose stiff financial penalties on those who violate copyrights, and in some limited cases there may even be criminal penalties.

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