What Is a Copyright?


Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the Authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works. The Copyright Act generally gives the owner of a Copyright the exclusive right:

  • to reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
  • to prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • to distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease or lending;
  • to perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic and choreographic works, pantomimes and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • to display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
  • in the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Authorship and Copyright Protection exists from the time the work is created in a fixed form and immediately becomes the property of the Author who created the work. Only the Author, or those deriving their rights through the Author, can rightfully claim Copyright. The Authors of a joint work are co-owners of the Copyright unless there is an agreement to the contrary.

In the case of works “made for hire, the employer, not the employee, is considered to be the Author. According to Copyright Law, work “made for hire” is:

  • a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or
  • a work specially ordered or commissioned for use, such as:
    • a contribution to a collective work
    • a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
    • a translation
    • a supplementary work
    • a compilation
    • an instructional text
    • a test
    • answer material for a test
    • an atlas; or
  • if the parties expressly agree in writing that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.


Works Originally Created on or After January 1, 1978:

A work that was created on or after January 1, 1978 is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the Author’s life, plus an additional 70 years. In the case of “a joint work prepared by two or more Authors who did not work for hire,” the term lasts for 70 years after the last surviving Author’s death. For works made for hire, and for anonymous and pseudonymous works (unless the Author’s identity is revealed in Copyright Office records), the duration of Copyright will be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

Works Created Before January 1, 1978 but not Published or Registered by That Date:

These works have been automatically brought under the statute and are now given federal Copyright protection. The duration of Copyright in these works is generally computed in the same way as are works created on or after January 1, 1978: the life-plus-70 or 95/120-year terms apply to them as well. The law provides that in no case would the term of Copyright for works in this category expire before December 31, 2002. And for works published on or before December 31, 2002, the term of Copyright will not expire before December 31, 2047.

Works Originally Created and Published or Registered Before January 1, 1978:

Under the law in effect before 1978, Copyright was secured either on the date a work was published with a Copyright Notice or on the date of registration if the work was registered in unpublished form. In either case, the Copyright endured for a first term of 28 years from the date it was secured. During the last (28th) year of the first term, the Copyright was eligible for renewal. The Copyright Act of 1976 extended the renewal term from 28 to 47 years for Copyrights that were subsisting on January 1, 1978 or for pre-1978 Copyrights restored under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), making these works eligible for a total term of protection of 75 years. Public Law 105-298, enacted on October 27, 1998, further extended the renewal term of Copyrights still subsisting on that date by an additional 20 years, providing for a renewal term of 67 years and a total term of protection of 95 years.

An amendment to the Copyright Act to provide for automatic renewal of the term of Copyrights secured between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977. Although the renewal term is automatically provided, the Copyright Office does not issue a renewal certificate for these works unless a renewal application and fee are received and registered in the Copyright Office. Further, Copyright Law makes renewal registration optional. Thus, filing for renewal registration is no longer required to extend the original 28-year Copyright term to the full 95 years; however, some benefits accrue to renewal registrations that were made during the 28th year.


Copyright protects “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. The fixation need not be directly perceptible so long as it may be communicated with the aid of a machine or device. Copyrightable works include the following categories:

  • literary works;
  • musical works, including any accompanying words;
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  • pantomimes and choreographic works;
  • pictorial, graphic and sculptural works;
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • sound recordings;
  • architectural works;

    These categories should be viewed broadly. For example, computer programs and most “compilations” may be registered as “literary works. Maps and architectural plans may be registered as “pictorial, graphic and sculptural works.”


Several categories of material are generally not eligible for Federal Copyright protection. These include among others:

  • Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression. For example: choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded.
  • Titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents.
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation or illustration.
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship. For example: standard calendars; height and weight charts; tape measures and rulers; and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources.


The use of a Copyright Notice is no longer required under United States law, although it is often beneficial. Because prior law did contain such a requirement, the use of notice is still relevant to the Copyright status of older works.

  1. The symbol © (the letter “C” in a circle); or the word “Copyright; or the abbreviation “Copr.
  2. The year of first publication of the work. For compilations or derivative works incorporating previously published material, the year date of first publication of the compilation or derivative work is sufficient. The year date may be omitted where a pictorial, graphic or sculptural work (with accompanying textual matter, if any) is reproduced in or on greeting cards, postcards, stationery, jewelry, dolls, toys, or any useful article.
  3. The name of the owner of Copyright in the work, an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized or a generally known alternative designation of the owner.

    Example: © 2007 John Doe

The Copyright Notice for phonorecords and the like, embodying a sound recording should contain all the following:

  1. The symbol è (the letter “P” in a circle)
  2. The year of first publication of the sound recording.
  3. The name of the owner of Copyright in the sound recording, an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized or a generally known alternative designation of the owner. If the producer of the sound recording is named on the phonorecord label or container and if no other name appears in conjunction with the notice, the producer’s name shall be considered a part of the Notice.

    Example: 2006 A.B.C. Records Inc.


There is no such thing as an “International Copyright” that will automatically protect an Author’s writings throughout the entire world. Protection against unauthorized use in a particular country depends, basically, on the national laws of that country. However, most countries do offer protection to foreign works under certain conditions, and these conditions have been greatly simplified by international Copyright Treaties and Conventions.

For More Information: www.copyright.gov


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