What is Copyright?

United States copyright law protects “original works of authorship” that are “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” (“fixed” means put down on paper, filmed, recorded to tape or a digital disc, and so on). It applies to a diverse set of published and unpublished works, including artistic, dramatic, literary, and musical works.[1] “Ideas” alone are not sufficient to warrant copyright protection; rather, the work must be expressed or recorded. If a work can be seen, heard, read, or watched, it is likely to fall under the scope of copyright.

Copyright protection typically gives the author the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, publicly display or perform, and make derivative works (e.g., adaptations or variations of the work) based on or substantially similar to the original. Absent a few noteworthy exceptions, it is generally illegal for anyone to violate these rights.

Formal registration of a copyright is not required to receive copyright protection in the U.S. Rather, an author is entitled to copyright protection from the moment he or she creates an original work and records that work in a tangible format. But formal registration with the United States Copyright Office is required in order to bring suit against an alleged infringer. In the event of a successful litigation, registration also allows an author to recover statutory damages and attorney’s fees from the infringer.

The duration of copyright protection depends upon when the author created the work and whether the author is an individual or entity. Works created by an individual on or after January 1, 1978 are protected during the life of the author + 70 years. Works created by corporate or anonymous authors are protected for the lesser of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. Click here for information regarding terms of copyright protection for works created before January 1, 1978.

Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement occurs when the allegedly infringing work is “substantially similar” to the original work. A work is substantially similar to another if it has an overall similarity as to its structure and organization or if it has a detailed similarity to its specific language. Notably, attribution (i.e., giving credit to a source) is not a defense to copyright infringement.

[1] For example, copyright law protects books, films, illustrations, novels, photographs, scripts, songs, and other forms of authorship.