Copyrights in General

Copyright law protects the expressions of ideas – not the ideas themselves.

For example, you can’t protect the idea of a romance aboard the Titanic, but it is possible to register the copyright for the James Cameron screenplay and the movie that resulted from it.

Works of Authorship

Copyright protects “works of authorship” such as:

  • Books
  • Poems, articles, essays, and other short works
  • Plays and screenplays
  • Songs (both words and music)
  • Photographs
  • Paintings
  • Sculptures
  • Choreographic works (dances)
  • Computer software

Exclusive Rights

A copyright gives the owner the exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce a work
  • Prepare derivative works (such as a movie based on a book)
  • Distribute copies or recordings
  • Perform a copyrighted work (such as a movie, play, dance, or song) publicly
  • Display a copyrighted work (such as a photo or painting) publicly

Duration of Copyright

For works created from 1978 onward:

  • Copyright lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.
  • If the work was a “work for hire,” then copyright lasts for 120 years from the date of creation or 95 years from the date of publication, whichever is shorter.

For works created before 1978, things are more complicated.

Registering Copyrights

A copyright comes into existence as soon as the author puts the work into a fixed form in a tangible means of expression. For example, a song that exists only in a composer’s head isn’t protected by copyright. The song is protected as soon as it’s written down or recorded.

Registering a copyright confers many valuable benefits – including enhanced damages in the event of infringement. Any copyrighted material that’s a valuable business asset – such as a computer program – should certainly be registered.

Although a copyright owner can register a copyright directly, and the process isn’t complicated, many people prefer to have an intellectual property attorney handle this for them.

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