How to Copyright

To find out how to copyright a piece of creative material, research the steps and required material. The author should register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office along with all supporting materials including information about the author and how the work was produced.

Understanding Copyright Protection

A copyright protects the intellectual property of original creative works, including those that have been published and those that have not. This may be a play, manuscript, screenplay, song, album, drawing or painting. Signing up for a copyright makes it clear that a person or persons is responsible for creating the work and, therefore, owns the work in its entirety. A copyright gives the owners the right to distribute, perform or display the work as they see fit. This prevents other individuals from distributing, performing, or displaying the work, unless they have permission from the owners of the copyright.

The first copyright assigned to a creative work in the United States was issued all the way back in 1790, not long after the country’s original founding. In conjunction with international treaties and laws, a U.S. copyright protects the creative material from being replicated in other countries. Getting a copyright for a piece of original material helps the artist or creator earn revenue off of their hard work, making the copyright an integral part of the American judicial system.

In the legal community, experts often dispute the best ways to go about obtaining a copyright for a piece of original material. Getting a copyright through the U.S. Copyright Office is extremely easy. All a person has to do is fill out some information about the work online, upload a copy of the file, whether it’s an image or a piece of text, and pay a fee. A person can do this online or in person. All copyrights are filed with the U.S. Library of Congress.

In theory, an artist or writer automatically has copyrighted their material as soon as they create it, as long as what they’ve created is an original work. Getting an official U.S. copyright offers some additional legal protections. If a dispute were to arise, the creator would need to prove that they created the idea first and, therefore, own the rights to the material.

A copyright will only protect a piece of material if it’s considered a “tangible work of expression.” This applies to the following:

  • Literary works including poems, short stories, manuscripts, and books including fiction and nonfiction
  • Musical works including the composition and the lyrics
  • Dramatic works such as plays, TV shows, movies or screenplays, including any musical accompaniment
  • Physical displays of expression including dance routines, choreography, and pantomime routines
  • Visual works such as drawings, digital images, paintings, visual objects, and comics
  • Architectural plans
  • Audio recordings including albums, songs, and recordings made during live performances

Smaller items are not covered by U.S. copyright laws such as titles, names, logos, phrases, or some combination of words such as a slogan. These are more in line with what’s considered a trademark, or the things used to sell goods and services to consumers.

Other, more complicated items such as inventions, technical specifications, and original products would be covered by U.S. patent law.

Intangible items are also not covered by U.S. copyright law such as ideas or concepts. If a person wishes to copyright an idea, they will have to translate it into a tangible form by writing it down and adapting it to a certain medium.

Unoriginal items are also not covered by U.S. copyright law including new discoveries such as an uncovered artifact. An adaptation of another person’s original material cannot be protected by a copyright unless the creator has permission from the person that created the original piece of material.

A person can also register for a compilation copyright, which protects groups of materials that have been assembled or rearranged in a new light. There are certain restrictions for compilation copyrights. It all depends on the type of materials being collected and whether these items have been copyrighted by other individuals.

While it’s not necessary to register for a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, obtaining one and presenting the copyright to the public sends a clear message that this work is not to be plagiarized or repurposed in any way. A person can still steal aspects of the original material, but they would be doing so with full knowledge that the original creator will defend his/her work.

There is a specific reason as to why U.S. copyright law does not provide legal protections for intangible works of expression such as ideas. A person cannot copyright an idea without putting any effort into bringing their ideas to fruition. If a person were to talk about their idea to a friend and that person were to steal their idea and turn it into a tangible work such as a story or a song, the person that actually produced the work would be the rightful owner of the copyright, not the person with the original idea.

It's important that everyone understand the laws behind different kinds of intellectual property protection including copyrights, patents, and trademarks. While a copyright protects creative works in their entirety, a patent protects inventions and original products such as a new piece of machinery or a consumer good that can be manufactured, reproduced and sold to the public. A trademark, on the other hand, protects smaller pieces of text such as names, titles, groups of words, phrases, logos and symbols. A trademark is used to protect the language, imagery and even the packaging that a company would use to sells goods and services.

Logos can be protected by both copyrights and trademarks. While logos are used to sell goods and services, they also contain original artwork, which would be protected under U.S. copyright law. A company or individual may want to get both a copyright and a trademark for a logo, especially if they plan on selling goods and services and making money off of the company’s brand.

If a person with a copyright changes their original work, they may need to register for a new copyright depending on how extensively they change their work. Once a person has signed up for a copyright, it will last for the duration of the creator’s life and another 70 years after their death. This only applies to works that were created after 1978.

After the copyright expires, the creator can leave the rights to their offspring. Copyrights are no long renewed. Instead, the U.S. Library of Congress automatically renews the copyright. Those that own a copyright will need to consider whom they will leave the rights to when they die. This information is usually detailed in a person’s will.

If someone makes a work without attaching their name to it such as an anonymous work or a work that was commissioned or contracted by a company or a corporation, the copyright will only last for 95 years after it was first published or 120 years after the work was originally created. As for works that were created before 1978, the copyright may last for a shorter period of time depending on how long it has been since it was first created. If a person would like to sell or simply transfer their copyright to another individual or a company, they will need to sign away their rights to the new owner with a valid signature.

Owning a copyright to a piece of material does not prevent other people for accessing the work under what is known as the “doctrine of fair use.” This provision in U.S. copyright law is reserved for those working with creative materials for educational or research purposes. If a person feels that their work has been accessed unfairly, they may file a lawsuit to collect damages or a proceed of the user’s profits. The court will have to decide whether the person accessing the material falls under the doctrine of fair use.

The court will make this determination depending on several factors. If a work is based on historical fact rather than pure creative invention, the work will most like by categorized as fair-use. The court will also consider whether the material has made a significant amount of money. If it has, the work will most likely not be considered fair-use. If a work was made for mostly educational or nonprofit purposes, the court will most likely deem the work as fair-use. The court will also look at how much of the original work appears or is referenced in the new user’s work. If the overlap is extensive, the court may not grant the new user fair-use.

If a work is unfinished, the creator can register for a copyright prematurely. While this does not provide the same protections as a traditional copyright, it shows that the creator intends to get a copyright when the work is finished. The creator can register for a full copyright later once the work is finished.

Tips to Ensure that a Creation/Work Is Safe or Protected

If an artist or creator wants to make sure that their work is safe from copyright infringement, they may want to add the copyright symbol. If the artist’s work were to appear in writing in a publication or be distributed to the public, the copyright symbol should be included with the work. Although it is not necessary to issue a copyright symbol, it will help the original creator protect themselves in court.

The user that accessed the work or infringed upon the copyright might claim ignorance in court, stating that they were not aware that the work was copyrighted. Showing the copyright symbol is an easy way to negate that argument.

The creator can also issue a copyright notice including their name, date of publication, copyright owner, and the copyright symbol. This notice should accompany the work if it’s being displayed in public or distributed. Works that are difficult to reproduce such as paintings or drawings may not need a copyright symbol or statement. However, if the artist has digital images online, these should be labeled with the copyright symbol.

When registering their work with the U.S. Copyright Office, the creator may also want to include supporting evidence with their registration to better protect their work. This may include what’s known as the “evolution of ideas,” which includes how the work has progressed over the years, the original inception of the idea, rough drafts, sketches, and other supporting materials. This shows the court and the U.S. Copyright Office that the author is the true owner of the work and that the work came from an original idea.

Once a work is finished and distributed or published, the owner may want to include hidden information that proves that the work is an original. This may include purposeful mistakes or a watermark that identifies the original creator.

If the creator discovers that someone is copying work or intends to copy their work, they can send out a cease and desist letter that warns the person copying their work of possible legal implications. The letter may include a warning that the person who owns the work will file a lawsuit against the person copying their work if that person continues to do so. The letter may also include a request for a confirmation that the person copying the work has received the letter and has stopped copying the material. If the owner of the copyright does not receive this confirmation, it is implied that the owner of the copyright will continue with the lawsuit.

If several people were responsible for creating a work, the group will have to decide who owns the copyright or how the copyright will be shared among the members of the group. If the work were to be reproduced, the group will have to decide how to split up the profits or if the work should be reproduced at all.

Anyone that owns a piece of copyrighted material should find a lawyer that specializes in copyright law if an infringement lawsuit were to come about.

If you need help with how to copyright, you can post your legal job on UpCounsel’s marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Stripe, and Twilio.