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When thinking of the copyright symbol ©, many people might associate the symbol as the obligatory stamp added on to the end of every book title or album cover, but what exactly does it mean? More importantly, how can this symbol be used to protect the work of artists, authors and creators everywhere?

The copyright notice is typically denoted by the symbol © (the letter C with a circle around it). The symbol informs the public that the copyright law protects a piece of work. This law gives authors the sole right to publish and distribute their work in all forms. If you or your business produce creative work including books, essays, photographs, music, art, movies or videos, understanding when and how to use the copyright symbol may be useful to you.

How to Use the Symbol

A copyright notice must be visually perceptible and include three elements: (1) the appropriate symbol, (2) the first year of publication and (3) the name of the copyright owner. The copyright symbol used varies depending on the form of the creative work. For example, the copyright symbol used for sound recordings is the letter P with a circle around it. Or, in a movie, the copyright notice must be placed immediately before or after the work or near the title. If you are not sure which copyright notice to use, refer to the U.S. Copyright Office publication on Copyright Notice, Circular 3.

Companies such as Twitter and Microsoft typically use the symbol first, followed by the year and ending with the company name; however, the order in which the three elements are written can vary and will have no effect on the rights of the owner in the context of the law.

Registering a Copyright

Once a work is created in a way that is possible for tangible distribution, it will automatically have a copyright. You could also register the copyright for extra protections such the ability to sue or collect damages from those who infringe upon the copyright until it is registered. To register for a copyright, you must submit an application electronically or by mail. You must also include a deposit, or copy, of the work to the Copyright Office. You can also contact an attorney to assist you in the process.

Registering your work is optional, so when should you decide to register your work? As previously mentioned, there are benefits that come with registering a copyright such as the ability to sue for damages. Typically, if your work is not easily accessible others, registering a copyright will not be necessary. There are alternative ways to target those who unlawfully use your work even though you cannot sue them in court. For example, send cease and desist letters.

How the Symbol Can Protect You

Prior to the 1976 Copyright Act, it was mandatory for works to have the copyright notice printed on it in order to be protected by the copyright law. Omitting the copyright notice could have resulted in a loss of all copyright protection. For works published after March 1, 1989, the author’s work will be protected whether or not they have the copyright symbol attached to them.

Although the use of a visible copyright notice is no longer required, there are many benefits of using the symbol and registering your copyright. If you filed a lawsuit against a person who infringed on your copyright when your work did not have the copyright symbol attached, the defendant might use the “innocent infringement defense.” The innocent infringement defense is used to argue that the individual was not given proper notice of the copyright, which could result in decreased damages awarded to the copyright owner in the case of a lawsuit.

The purpose of the copyright symbol and notice is to demonstrate an author’s sole right to publication and distribution, in all forms, of their work. Registering and attaching a copyright notice to your work will guarantee you full protection of the law and the right to enforce your copyright in court.

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