Copyright is the legal protection by the United States Title 17 legal code for “original works of authorship.” Such works protected by copyright law include literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other work of that nature. Copyright applies to published and unpublished works, despite some common misconceptions.

Whoever owns the copyright for a work of the type listed above has exclusive rights to that work. They can:

  • Make copies
  • Create new work based on the protected work
  • Distribute copies of the work either by selling it or assigning ownership to someone else
  • Perform the work publicly like in the case the work is a musical, play, movie, etc.
  • Display the work publicly if it’s a photo, sculpture, etc., including images from a movie
  • Perform the work in public if it’s an audio piece

Copyright infringement is when someone who doesn’t own the copyright uses the material in any of the ways mentioned above. Still, copyright isn’t unlimited.

Copyright only protects “original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form of expression.” These kinds of copyrightable works include literature; music, including lyrics; dramatic works, including any accompanying music; choreography; photos, digital graphics, and sculptures; movies and other audiovisual productions; sound recordings; and architectural works.

Anything that is not in a tangible form, i.e., written down, notated or recorded, or any improvisational performances, including speeches, are not covered by copyright. Additionally:

  • Titles
  • Names
  • Short phrases
  • Slogans
  • Familiar symbols or designs
  • Variations of typography, lettering, or coloring
  • Ingredients or contents of a recipe

are also not covered by copyright.

Additionally, things like calendars, charts for height/weight, rules, and other things of that nature that are common in public materials and sources are not covered by copyright. They are much too common for any one person to own. It would be like copyrighting the word “We.”

The government is also prohibited from copyrighting its work since it technically belongs to the people. As such, all works by the U.S. Government are placed directly into the public domain.

Unfortunately, fashion designers are not able to have copyrights on their work. Their designs are not considered to be applicable to the current copyright laws even though architectural designs are protected.

If you work for a company, then your employer and not you are considered to be the author. Because you have been hired to do that work, the company owns it.

If you create something with another or other people, then all creators are considered co-owners of the copyright. You are allowed to make an agreement, however, granting copyright to one of you.

Does a work have to be published to be copyrighted?

Originally, a work had to be published to be granted copyright protection. However, that is no longer the case. When a work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression,” it is considered to be protected.

When referring to publication, this specifically means that the work has been distributed to the public by either sale or other transfer of ownership. Handing out copies of your work to a group of people to further disburse the information is considered to be publication. When it comes to performances, however, or choreography, simply performing in public does not constitute publication.

The copyright symbol should be used by the person who holds the copyright. There is no approval needed to use the symbol, since works are automatically copyrighted. For example, a website should always have the copyright symbol and the year in the footer.

Still, you don’t have to use the copyright symbol in order to be protected. We still recommend using it, though, to inform the public that the work is protected by copyright. It can also identify the copyright owner and show when the work was first published. It does give additional weight to a copyright claim in case the issue goes to court. So be sure to always include the copyright just in case.

If you need help with copyrights, you can post your legal need 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, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.