What Exactly Is A Copyright?

Copyright law protects the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.

Copyright law does not protect facts or ideas.  So the fact that “Toy Story 4 will be released by Disney in 2017″ can’t be owned by anyone.  But an article reviewing the Toy Story franchise and discussing its impact on our culture over the past 20 years is copyrightable.  (I chose Toy Story 4 as an example because it’s trending on Twitter as I type these words.)

Copyright law gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do (and to authorize others to do) the following:

–       reproduce the work

–       prepare derivative works based upon the work

–       distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer

–       perform the work publicly

–       display the work publicly.

Copyrights can be very valuable assets.  Musicians earn royalties selling copies of their music on CDs and online, and licensing their songs to be used in connection with movies and commercials.  Software developers license their programs.  Authors sell copies of their books.  Paparazzi photographers earn lots of money licensing exclusive photos of celebrities.  Publishers sell online subscriptions to newsletters and databases.

Though copyright automatically exists from the moment a work is created, and though registration is not a condition for copyright protection, the United States Copyright Act provides a number of significant benefits to owners of works that are registered.

–       Registration establishes a public record of the copyright claim.

–       Registration is necessary for works of U.S. origin before an infringement suit can be filed in court.

–       If registration is made within three months after publication of the work, or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney’s fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions.  Otherwise only an award of actual damages and profits is available to the copyright owner.  Statutory damages range from $750 – $30,000 per work infringed, and can be increased to $150,000 per work infringed in the case of willful infringement!

–       If made before or within five years of publication, registration will establish prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright and of the facts stated in the certificate.

–       Registration allows the owner of the copyright to record the registration with the U.S. Customs Service for protection against the importation of infringing copies.

If you or your business has a website, or develops, distributes or licenses content (articles, presentations, manuscripts, photographs, fine art), then you should (i) be aware of copyright law; (ii) consider implementing a copyright registration and enforcement program; and (iii) avoid potential liability by ensuring that you and your employees do not infringe third parties’ copyrights.  Copyright owners can generate income from licensing their content, and can collect significant damages from infringers.

For more on copyright law, read this circular.

Please feel free to contact me with questions you may have about the registration or enforcement of copyrights, or the defense of an infringement claim.