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When filing for intellectual property protection for the first time, it can be quite difficult to understand the distinctions among trademarks, copyrights, and patents. They are all, in fact, very different, operating under separate laws and offering protection for different types of original intellectual creations. This article elaborates the specifics of copyright protection and registration.

Copyright is a form of intellectual property protection administered by the U.S. government to authors of original creative works, granting the creator exclusive rights for use and distribution. In particular, it grants to the copyright owner the sole right to reproduce the work in copies, prepare derivative works, distribute copies to the public for sale, and perform or display the work publicly. These rights can be individually licensed for limited use upon payment of specified royalties. Exemptions to copyright liability are permitted by “fair use,” under which copyrighted material may be used for purposes of criticism, reporting, teaching, and research.

Who Can Claim a Copyright?

Copyright protection is in effect at the time of creation of the work and immediately becomes the property of the author. When the work is made for hire, such as a commissioned piece, the employer is considered the author instead. The transfer of a copyright owner’s exclusive rights is allowed, provided that the transfer is in writing and signed by the owner. Only through this type of transfer can anyone derive rights to claim copyright; simply owning a book, painting, or other original work does not convey any rights to the copyright.

What Works Are Protected By Copyright?

Copyright protects creative works that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. This means that the work must be sufficiently permanent or stable to allow it to be perceived, reproduced, and communicated. For example, a literary work written on paper or a musical work phonographically recorded are sufficiently stable. Copyrightable works include literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, graphical, sculptural, audiovisual, and architectural types of work. These categories are extremely broad, allowing technological advances such as computer code to be copyrighted under the literary work category.

Copyright only protects an actual expression of the author and must contain a minimum amount of creativity. Works that are not protected by copyright include:

  • Works that have not been fixed in tangible form. For instance, improvisational speeches that have not been recorded or written down are not protected.
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and contain no original authorship
  • Other items, such as titles, names, slogans, ideas, methods, systems, discoveries, etc., that would more relevantly be protected by patents, trademarks, or other intellectual property protection
  • Format, arrangement, or typography of a work.
  • Blank forms and similar works, designed to record rather than to convey information

How to Register for a Copyright

Copyright registration is a legal formality to include your work in the federal centralized database that records when a copyright was claimed and by whom. However, registration is not required to grant protection to the copyright holder. Rather, this public record gives an edge to a registered party in court when disputes over copyrights arise.

You can file an application online through the Electronic Copyright Office. The standard online fee is $35.00 and processing time can generally last 6 to 10 months. Hiring an intellectual property attorney is often a good idea to receive legal advice beforehand and to assist in the event of copyright infringement.

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