What Is and Is Not Covered by Copyright?

Copyright law

Copyright refers to a type of intellectual property ownership that protects someone’s rights to and interest in an original work. Whoever has the copyright to a work has the legal right to reproduce (copy) the work and distribute it. The copyright holder is the only one with this right; anyone else that wants to copy the work must have permission from the copyright holder.

Copyright law helps protect creators. For example, if someone writes a novel, they can publish it and expect people to pay for copies to read it. Copyright keeps people from legally copying the novel to pass out to others or claiming the novel as their own.

However, copyright applies to much more than creative writing. Learn below what copyright does and doesn’t cover and how a business lawyer can help you protect your interests.

What Is Covered by Copyright Law?

Copyright protects original works, including:

  • Literary works, such as novels, short stories, and poems
  • Dramatic works, such as plays or movie/TV scripts
  • Musical works, including song lyrics, compositions, and choreography
  • Audiovisual works, including films as separate works from the scripts they are based on
  • Architectural drawings and works
  • Visual works of art, including paintings, sculptures, sketches, or graphic designs

woman on computer

Federal copyright law is fairly loose on the interpretation of what falls under these types of categories. Original maps might be copyrighted as visual works, and the same is true for original technical drawings related to a product. Even computer programs may be copyrighted under the right circumstances.

What Can’t Be Protected by Copyright?

However, copyright is not without limits, and there are plenty of concepts and even works that aren’t protected by these laws.

Anything that is not captured in a “fixed tangible form” cannot be copyrighted. If you make up choreography for a dance and teach it to others but never record it via film or notate it in writing, the idea of the choreography can’t be copyrighted. Ideas, in fact, can’t be copyrighted at all.

You also can’t copyright processes, systems, discoveries, or principles. Short phrases, slogans, titles, and symbolic elements such as logos can’t be copyrighted. That doesn’t mean many of these things can’t be protected; many are covered under trademark law, for example.

Copyright also demands some level of originality of the work in question. A list of ingredients for a cake can’t be copyrighted. However, a work containing original recipes for cake might be eligible for copyright.

What Rights Do You Have When You Own a Copyright?

When you own the copyright to a work, you have the exclusive right to copy and distribute it. You also have the right to give people permission to copy and distribute the work. For example, an author contracts with publishers and others to create copies of and distribute a novel. Textbook publishers might provide written permission in their books for teachers to copy certain elements for use in the classroom.

You also have the right to:

  • Display the work in public or give someone else permission to
  • Perform the work or allow others to do so
  • Create derivative work based on the original work and profit from that work if desired

Note that copyright can be complex and include some seeming gray areas. For example, fanfiction is writing that creates a derivative work based on original characters or universes. However, common legal thought on fanfiction is that it falls under fair use as long as the fanfiction meets the definition of a transformative work and the fanfiction author is not attempting to profit from the work. Transformative work is that which adds enough new content or meaning to create new or unique value separate from the original work.

As you can see, when and how copyright comes into play and whether you can file a claim for copyright infringement are complex issues. If you believe your rights under federal copyright law have been infringed, consulting with a business litigation attorney with experience in copyright cases can help you understand how to move forward.

Do You Have to Register for Copyright?

You can formally register an applicable work with the U.S. Copyright Office. This involves completing the necessary forms and submitting those forms along with a copy of the work to be reviewed. The Copyright Office ultimately decides whether it will grant or refuse the copyright.

You don’t need a formal copyright registration to own the copyright to a work. Technically, you automatically hold the copyright as soon as you create an original work. However, you can’t sue someone for copyright infringement without first registering the copyright.

How Long Does Copyright Last?

Copyright lasts for a long time. For works created today, the length of the copyright depends on the authorship:

  • Works authored by a single individual have a copyright that lasts that person’s entire lifetime plus 70 years
  • Works authored by multiple individuals have a copyright that lasts for 70 years after the final author passes away
  • Works that are for hire or published anonymously have a copyright that lasts 120 years from the date they were created or 95 years from the date they were first published, whichever is shorter

lady justice

Note that the use of “authorship” above does not limit these rules to written works of text such as novels. “Authorship” is used as a blanket term to refer to the creator or originator of works.

If you are dealing with copyright infringement and want legal help protecting your rights, contact Katie Charleston Law, PC, today to find out how we can help.


The post What Is and Is Not Covered by Copyright? appeared first on Katie Charleston Law, PC.


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