Where can I get basic copyright information?

In addition to the information about copyrights that you will find here, you can find information about copyrights at the U.S. Copyright Office Web site. The Copyright Office provides a wide variety of information about copyrights, electronic filing of copyrights applications and other copyrights documents. The Copyright Office contains all the information needed for the entire registration process.

TIP: If you need answers to specific questions about copyrights, you can contact the Copyright Office Public Information Office. The telephone number is 202.707.3000. To order copyright application forms, the telephone number is 202.707.9100 or the TTY telephone number is 202.707.6737.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software and architecture. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.

Example: The standard romantic scenario-Boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love; boy loses girl; boy and girl make up and live happily ever after-cannot be copyrighted. However, as we know from the multitude of books, movies, songs and other artistic renditions using this scenario, the particular way those ideas are expressed is a proper subject for copyright.

Are any works ineligible for a copyright?

Yes. Some common examples of illegible copyright works include:

  • titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  • standard calendars
  • height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers

So I can protect my creative ideas with a copyright?

Sadly, no. For instance, if you write a poem about floating on a quiet pond, the poem itself can be protected by a copyright but not the idea of floating on a pond.

Can DVDs and CD-ROMs be protected by copyright?

Yes. So can novels, software code, photographs, choreography and sheet music.

When is my work protected?

Your work has copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

Do I have to register my copyright?

No, you do not have to register your copyright. In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created.

Sidebar: However, you will have to register your work if you wish to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement of a U.S. work.

Where do I register a copyright?

You can register a copyright only with the U.S. Copyright Office. There is no state copyright registration process. Copyrights are solely the responsibility of the federal government.

If I do not have to register my copyright to be protected, why should I file a copyright registration?

There are many reasons, the most obvious being that by registering your work, your copyright is a matter of public record, and you have a certificate of registration. Not as obvious, but very important, is that the federal copyright law gives the owners of registered works important legal rights. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation. Also, if registration occurs within 5 years of publication of the work, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law of the facts stated in the certificate and that the applicant issued the certificate has met the requirements for protection.

What do I have to do to show that I am claiming copyright in a work?

You need to place a "copyright notice" on the work. A copyright notice is an identifier placed on copies of the work to inform the world of copyright ownership that generally consists of the symbol "©"or word "copyright" (or "copr."), the year of first publication and the name of the copyright owner.

Example: Proper copyright notices include: "© 2005 Peter Smith" or "Copyright 2005 Peter Smith."

Although a copyright notice was at one time required as a condition of copyright protection, it is now optional. Use of the notice is the responsibility of the copyright owner and does not require advance permission from or registration with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Sidebar: Unlike a trademark, where the symbol "©" can only be used on trademarks registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the copyright symbol "©" can be used on works that have not been registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

What about the symbol for sound recordings?

This symbol (the letter P in a circle) is the copyright notice used on phonorecords embodying a sound recording. The notice should include: 1) the symbol (the letter P in a circle); 2) the year of first publication of the sound recording; and 3) the name of the owner of copyright in the sound recording or an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized or a generally known alternative designation of the owner. If the producer of the sound recording is named on the phonorecord label or container and if no other name appears in conjunction with the notice, the producer's name is considered a part of the notice.

Example: The notice should look like this: 2005 A.B.C. Records Inc.

What if the work is unpublished?

Where the author wants to give a copy of an unpublished work to someone but wants to be sure that the person receiving the copy is aware of the author's claim of copyright, the author can use a notice such as: "Unpublished work © 2005 Peter Smith."

What does it mean that a work is in the "public domain"?

A work of authorship is in the "public domain" if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection.

Sidebar: Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.

What is a Library of Congress number?

The Library of Congress Control Number is assigned by the Library at its discretion to assist librarians in acquiring and cataloging works.

What is an ISBN number?

The ISBN-International Standard Book Number-is a numerical identifier intended to assist the international community in identifying and ordering certain publications. The ISBN system is administered by a private company, R. R. Bowker Company. More information about ISBN can be found here.

How long does a copyright last?

The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published and if it has, the date of first publication. Jan. 1, 1978 is a demarcation line of sorts.

The general rule is that for works created after Jan. 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. However, for anonymous and pseudonymous works or a work made for hire, the copyright lasts for a term of 95 years from either the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.

For works first published prior to Jan. 1, 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, you need to consult the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. Sections 302 to 305).

Do I have to renew my copyright?

For works created on or after Jan. 1, 1978, copyrights are not subject to renewal registration. The copyright registration for works published or registered before Jan. 1, 1978 may be renewed after 28 years. Renewal registration for pre-Jan. 1, 1978 works provides certain legal advantages.

My child has written a book of poems. Can she register for a copyright?

Yes. The U.S. Copyright office issues copyrights to minors.

My great-great-grandfather took some photographs during World War I. Can I get the negatives copyrighted and registered?

Yes, if you own them. Historical documents that have been passed down through families by will or inheritance can be copyrighted by the author's descendents.

Can I sell my late husband's copyrights in his songs?

Yes, if you own a copyright, you may sell or transfer it like any other piece of property.

TIP: Unlike the U.S. Patent Office, the Copyright Office does not have transfer forms, but it will file transfer records if they are sent to it.

I am a Web site designer. Can I copyright the Web sites I create?

Yes. Online works may be copyrighted, and the U.S. Copyright Office publishes a guide located on its Web site.

TIP: Domain names cannot be copyrighted.

Are copyrights the reason that it is sometimes illegal to download music and movie files to my computer?

Yes. Unless you have permission from the owner, you are infringing on their copyrights. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, "anyone found to have infringed a copyrighted work may be liable for statutory damages up to $30,000 for each work infringed." The amount of the fine can go as high as $150,000 per work if the owner can prove that you "willfully infringed" on his or her copyright.

TIP: Since copyrights come into existence at the time a work is created, it is safe to assume all "works" on the Internet are copyrighted. Some works are specifically designated as "free" or "shareware," and you are not violating a copyright when you download those works. Additionally, many companies have an "angel policy" that allows noncommercial use of their designs.

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