What Is a Copyright?

A copyright is a type of legal protection given to content creators and artists. When a person creates a story, a work of art, or a piece of software, the copyright provides legal ownership of the work. The creator receives exclusive rights to the use and distribution of the work for a set amount of time.

The United States government handles all forms of copyright protection. The nature of copyright has changed rapidly during the internet era. New kinds of content creation are now popular. Meanwhile, existing types of content have changed in form and in distribution model. Despite these novel changes, the general nature of copyright remains the same. 

What Is Eligible for a Copyright?

The following works are eligible for a copyright:

  • All literary works: These include short stories, poems, newspaper articles, blogs, plays, and reference materials.
  • Advertisements
  • Architecture
  • Artistic works: These include drawings, paintings, pictures, and sculptures.
  • Technical Drawings
  • Films
  • Television shows
  • Podcasts
  • Choreography
  • Musical compositions
  • Concerts and other live performances
  • Computer software
  • Computer hardware

 For any of these works to qualify for a copyright, they must meet what the law describes as "some minimal degree of creativity." 

What Is Not Eligible for Copyright Claim?

The primary areas where someone can't claim copyright status are:

  • Facts
  • Ideas
  • Methods of Operation
  • Systems

Which Protections Does a Copyright Give?

Think of a copyright as your ownership of something that you've created. Whether you take a picture, write a short story, or compose a piece of music, it's your work. A copyright gives you legal protection over that creation. As the copyright owner, only you have the right to:

  • Reproduce the Work: You can make copies of the content you created. You may distribute your work as you see fit.
  • Create Other Works Based on the Original Work: For example, you may want to combine a series of blog posts into a book.
  • Display the Work in Public: When you create art, you may want others to look at it. Your painting, statue, or installation is yours to show wherever you like. 
  • Ability to sell copies of your work: You can profit from your copyrighted idea by selling it. 
  • Perform the Work in Public: When you write music, a book, a play, or anything else you can display in public, you have the right to do so. For example, you have the right to play your own music at a concert. 

You as the content creator with a copyright hold these rights for a period of time. You cannot lose them unless you legally give them up. You own the rights to your works in the same way that you own your house or car. Nobody else can use any of it without your express permission.

The American court system strongly defends copyright law. Copyright also gives the owner economic rights. Some moral rights also exist, although moral law isn't a part of many American laws yet. 

What Are Economic Rights?

The owner of a copyright can benefit financially by allowing use of a work. The content creator can:

  • Allow reproduction of the work publicly or in print.
  • Allow public performance, usually for a play or piece of music. 
  • Allow translation into foreign languages.
  • Allow broadcasting on television, radio, or internet streaming.
  • Allow derivative works.

Popular copyright works are often the basis for other works. For example, a popular novel could become the inspiration for a movie. When a filmmaker gets permission to create a derivative work and makes a movie, they legally own that movie. They have the right to copyright their creation, even though it is based on something else.

What Are Moral Rights?

These rights are a different but important form of protection for a content creator. It allows the person to protect the work from actions that could damage the work's reputation or the creator's reputation.

Moral rights give the author the following benefits:

  • Right to claim ownership of the work.
  • Right to publish work anonymously or under pseudonym.
  • Right to object to usages of the work that would damage its perception or reputation.
  • Right to object an unfair attack that would injure the author's reputation.

Moral rights protect intellectual property from corruption. The United States doesn't recognize moral rights yet. Since the notions of copyright developed in England during the late 17th century, however, it's an important concept that is popular in Europe and other parts of the world.

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

The time limit for a copyright depends on the date of the work. Anything created after January 1, 1978, has a copyright for the life of the author plus 70 years.

That means that a person who dies tomorrow would have a copyright on their work for 70 years and one day. A person who dies 30 years from today would have a copyright for exactly 100 years.

There are a couple of exceptions to this rule. Someone who creates a work anonymously will have copyright protection for 95 years from the publication date of the work. Alternately, they'll have copyright protection for 120 years after the work's creation date. The same is true when someone commissions a work from a creator.

Does a Person Have to Register a Copyright?

No, creating the work automatically gives a person a copyright. Registration of the copyright is voluntary. A person may register their work at any point during the timeframe when their work is eligible for copyright. Still, official registration lets the creator: 

  • Have a public record of their copyright claim.
  • File an infringement lawsuit in court.
  • Receive return of legal fees for copyright infringement claims.

The three steps of the copyright registration process are:

  • Fill out the application.
  • Pay the application fee.
  • Pay a deposit for the legal copy of your work.

What Is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement is when a person breaks the rules of copyright by using another person's work without their permission. It is a federal crime. This is true whether the person did so knowingly or by mistake.

For example, you could take a movie and post it to YouTube. A movie studio owns the copyright on that film. You need the studio's permission to share it. If you post the movie without permission, the publication on YouTube is copyright infringement.

YouTube will take down the video. The movie studio has the right to file a copyright claim against you. The punishment for such crimes is a fine of $200 to $150,000 for each copyright infringement. You also have to pay the legal fees and court costs.

To avoid the hefty penalties that come with copyright infringement, you have three options. You can simply avoid using any work that you haven't created. You may use someone else's work after getting their permission. You can also read the rules for usage of copyrighted works. Sometimes, fair use laws allow you to use these works in legal ways.

You should consult with a lawyer when you're unclear about your options.

How Can a Person Know If They're Infringing On A Copyright?

You don't want to commit copyright infringement. The way to avoid this breaking of the law is by asking a series of yes/no questions. Let's use a song as example. Before uploading any music to the internet, a person must ask several copyright questions. These include:

  • Are you the writer of the music?
  • Are you the writer of the lyrics?
  • Are you the recorder of the song?
  • Are you the producer of the song?
  • Do you have permission from the copyright owner of the song?

Someone who can answer yes to these questions meets the first half of the criteria. Now, they must answer the following questions:

  • Do you have a publishing deal?
  • Do you have a music contract with anyone?
  • Have you sold the rights to the music to someone else?
  • Are you writing for a business that contracts your work?
  • Did you sample the music or lyrics from an existing song?

A no answer to each of these questions means that the person isn't committing copyright infringement.

The internet era adds a few more issues to the discussion. If a person creates a podcast, audiobook, or voice message, they must ask themselves:

  • Is the recording a new discussion and not a reading of something that already exists?
  • Did you make the recording?
  • Is it a recording of your performance?
  • Did everyone involved in the discussion give permission to upload the recording to the internet?

The person must answer yes to all four questions. They must also be able to answer no to the following two questions:

  • Does the recording recite dialogue from an existing script, play, book, movie, or television show?
  • Does the recording include music clips or audio from other copyrighted works?

If the person can answer these five questions correctly, they are not committing copyright infringement. They are uploading their own work and have a claim to it.

As a content creator, you should get a copyright for your work. Otherwise, you may wind up paying legal fees on a copyright infringement claim that you lose. You don't want someone else taking your ideas. The best strategy is to hire a lawyer from the UpCounsel Marketplace. Post your job there, and top attorneys will bid for the work.