What Is a Copyright?

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at the Pittsburgh law firm of Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. ()

PSMN What Is...? SeriesIn the next installment of our continuing “What Is?” series, we are going to discuss copyrights. One of the core intellectual property rights that exists under U.S. law is a copyright. In a nutshell, it is a legal right that provides authors of certain types of original and expressive works that have been fixed in a tangible medium the right to prevent others from using the work without the author’s permission. Obviously, there is a lot more detail behind this, so we will only cover some of the basics in this post.

First, only certain types of works are eligible for copyright protection. They include (1) literary works, (2) musical works, (3) dramatic works, (4) choreographic works, (5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, (6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works, (7) sound recordings, and (8) architectural works. In addition, the work must have been fixed in a tangible medium to be eligible for a copyright—e.g., written down, put on film, or written in a computer. Certain things cannot be copyrighted, such as (1) things that have not been fixed in a tangible form (e.g., thoughts in your head or speeches that are not recorded or written down), (2) titles, names, and short phrases, (3) ideas, methods, inventions, or systems, and (4) standardized and commonly known information, such as standard calendars, tape measures, and lists or tables of publicly known information.

Second, in order to be eligible for a copyright, the work must be original. But, it does not have to be novel. In other words, the author must show that he or she created the work (and did not copy it from someone else), but the author does not have to show that he or she was the first to ever think of the work.

If an author can satisfy these requirements, he or she has a copyright. Under the change in federal law in 1976, a copyright exists under federal law the moment an author fixes an original expressive work in a tangible medium. There is no longer the need to affix a copyright symbol to the work or register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. But, and this is a big but, there are a number of important advantages to registering a work with the Copyright Office that can be lost if not done timely. So, it is best for an author to consult an intellectual property attorney if there is the possibility that the work may be valuable or need to be protected.

A copyright gives an author a number of substantive legal rights, such as the ability to control who (1) reproduces or distributes copies of the work, (2) creates derivative works based on the original, and (3) performs or displays the work publicly. An author can sue an individual or company that violates these rights and collect damages, statutory penalties, or obtain a court order preventing the infringer from violating these rights in the future. In some cases, copyright infringement can even be a crime.

Because a copyright is a property right, it can be sold, transferred, or licensed like other types of real and intellectual property.

As of January 1, 1978, a copyright lasts for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. If the work was made for hire or was published anonymously/psuedonymously, the copyright lasts for the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation.

For more information about copyright, you can read this nice summary by the United States Copyright Office.

In upcoming posts, we’ll talk about some other issues involving copyrights, such as the fair use defense, what kind of remedies are available to authors whose works have been improperly copied, and the work-for-hire doctrine, among other things.

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One response to “What Is a Copyright?

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