The creation of an original work may take hours, days, months or even years, and once a person has concluded it, having someone else take credit for it could be financially devastating. The Copyright Act of 1976 is the federal government’s way of providing protection so that people do not lose the rights to their own work, as well as any benefits that may result from it.
When a Work Can Be Copyrighted
If a person authors, develops, publishes or otherwise creates an original, creative work that is expressed in a tangible mode, the material can be protected by a copyright. It must not have been reproduced from a preexisting work, and it may be expressed through a medium such as music, writing, dramatic performance, picture or graphic. The ability to view or communicate a fixed form of the work is an essential condition of copyrightable material. The extent to which it must be creative is minimal.
In the United States, facts cannot be copyrighted, so they may be used by anyone without infringement. Other limitations include common symbols such as the alphabet. Emoticons, which are created using symbols found on a keyboard, cannot be copyrighted. However, this may not extend to some emojis, which are created through computer coding to be treated like a language and supported by web browsers and programs designed for mobile devices.
Federal laws and other documents created by U.S. government employees in the course of their work cannot be copyrighted. At the state level, an employee may be able to create copyrightable material at work. But, in general, any work may belong to an agency or organization that sanctions its creation as part of official job duties.
How to Obtain a Copyright
Once a person has created a work, acquiring a copyright on it in the United States is as simple as placing the name and date on it, along with the copyright symbol (©) or the word ‘copyright.’ If the material is a recording, the symbol is ℗, which stands for ‘phonorecord.’ The copyright may or may not be valid in other countries, depending on their laws.
Technically, the notice is not necessary for published works that have been created since March 1, 1989. However, by adding the copyright notice before sharing access of the material, a person ensures that others recognize ownership.
Protection for the work does not extend to a legal action unless the creator has registered it with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration involves sending a package that contains a copy of the work, the application and the fees to the Copyright Office. Once the creator is a copyright owner, he or she can seek damages that cover the loss suffered because of the infringement. To be awarded statutory damages and attorney’s fees, the work must have been registered within three months of its publication, or a minimum of three months before the work was infringed upon.
Two copies of the work are required if it is a recording, and works in other formats often have their own specific conditions. These include literary works that are recorded rather than printed, three-dimensional works, video games and computer programs.
Rights Bestowed by a Copyright
The owner of a copyright can perform, distribute, copy and display the work however he or she sees fit. Copyright holders who want to create a spin-off, alternative medium or other derived work based on the original material have the right to do so. They may also transfer these rights to another person via a written and signed document. Owners who wish to allow someone else to use the protected materials without transferring them may grant a license to that effect. Once a work is copyrighted, it is protected from infringement for 70 years after the creator’s death.
Fair Use and Public Domain
Others can use portions of copyrighted materials under certain circumstances, which are known as fair use. Facts may be used, as well as a small piece of the work that has small significance relative to the whole. People may also use excerpts to write reviews or to create an original commentary about the work.
Material is available for use and not protected by copyright law if it is in the public domain. This includes any work with a U.S. publication date before 1923. Those published between 1923 and 1963 are in the public domain if the author did not renew the copyright 28 years after the first publication date, or if the material was published before March 1, 1989, without a copyright notice. If a work was published before 1978, the copyright requires renewal for continued validity.
Protecting an original creation in the United States has become easier over the years, but if a person is unsure whether copyright law covers the work in question, it is a good idea to contact the U.S. Copyright Office or a copyright attorney.
The content on our website is only meant to provide general information and is not legal advice. We make our best efforts to make sure the information is accurate, but we cannot guarantee it. Do not rely on the content as legal advice. For assistance with legal problems or for a legal inquiry please contact you attorney.