A Guide to Copyright Law

Copyright law encourages and rewards the creation of art and culture with the economic incentive of exclusive rights. Federal Copyright law grants authors and artists the exclusive right to make and sell copies of their work, the right to create subsequent work from the original, and the right to perform or display their work publicly.

Copyrights do not need to be registered before a copyright holder will get the right to exclude. However, certain benefits are obtained by registering with the U.S. Copyright Office. The first and probably biggest is that when you register your copyright you will be putting the entire world on constructive notice of your work. Rarely after registering a copyright will someone lose an infringement lawsuit, additionally registering your copyright will allow you to recover attorneys fees.

To obtain a valid copyright you will need to satisfy three elements that the U.S. government has set out. The first is that you need to have an individually created work that has some minimal degree of originality. The second is that the work must be one of the eight “works of authorship” that the United States Copyright Office has defined. Lastly, the work must be fixed, meaning the work should be written, recorded or otherwise embedded in some physical form. Anyone should be able to reproduce the work of art you create.

Some defenses to copyright law exist depending on the circumstance surrounding the use of the copyrighted material. For instance, the fair use doctrine has been implemented to allow some copyright in categories such as, criticism, scholarship or research and news reporting. The government wants to encourage society to create new and useful works of art, but has to set some boundaries to when a copyright holder has the right to exclude.

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