What Does Copyright Cover?

Copyright covers literary works such as:
  • Books
  • Plays
  • Poems
  • Musical works
  • Sound recordings
  • Paintings
  • Drawings
  • Cartoons
  • Photographs
  • Audio visual works (such as motion pictures and graphic animation)
  • Computer software

As the majority of material on the Internet falls into one of the categories listed above, most of this vast resource is eligible for copyright protection.

What Isn't Covered Under Copyright?

Copyright does not cover:
  • Facts (such as a measurement)
  • Short phrases or words (such as business names or book titles)
  • Ideas
  • Processes (such as recipes and game rules)
  • Unfixed works (such as an improvisational theater performance or musical "jam session" if it is not recorded)

Nature of the Copyright Interest

Copyright gives the author or owner of a work the right to control:
  • Reproduction
  • Distribution
  • Adaptation
  • Public performance
  • Public display of the work
  • Translations into other languages
  • Translations into other media (such as adapting a novel into a screenplay)

Selling copies of the work doesn't diminish the author's copyright control of the work. The purchasers of copies own the physical embodiment of the work, but generally do not own the work itself. The copyright owner may, of course also sell the copyright to the work, but must do so by means of a signed writing.

A copyright is considered infinitely divisible, meaning that the author may sell or license narrow portions of the right. For example, the author of a play could sell the right to publicly perform the play only at 3:00 p.m. on March 12, 2004 in Manassas, Virginia and retain the remainder of the copyright.

How Do I Get a Copyright?

Unlike patents, copyrights arise spontaneously when the work has been created. No application or registration is necessary.

The work may be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office if you wish, but this is optional. One reason for choosing to register the work is that a copyright cannot be enforced in a U.S. court unless it has been registered. The copyright registration process is fairly simple. You must first fill out forms available from the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington D.C. You then submit the forms to the Copyright Office along with a small fee and a certain number of copies of the work. The copies are added to the Library of Congress collection in Washington, D.C.

Term of the Copyright

Copyrights lasts for varying periods of time, depending upon who the author is. The copyright term for a work created by a natural person is the lifetime of the author plus 50 years. The copyright term for a work created by a corporation, through its employees, is 100 years from the date of creation, or 75 years from the date of publication.

When a copyright expires, the work falls into the public domain for anyone to use.

Infringement of Copyright and Fair Use

The copyright law provides for a limited right called fair use, which allows unauthorized use of portions of the copyrighted work for specific purposes. The fair use privilege is especially important in allowing study, scholarship, commentary and criticism of copyrighted works.

Infringement of a copyright consists of:
  • Unauthorized reproduction
  • Distribution
  • Adaptation
  • Public performance
  • Public display

The owner of the copyright can sue violators for money. Recently-enacted federal law also provides stiff criminal penalties for selling copyrighted material.

Sherrie Bennett is the former director and staff attorney at the University of Washington Student Legal Services in Seattle.


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