What Is Copyright?

A copyright is a collection of rights that automatically vest to someone who creates an original work of authorship like a literary work, song, movie or software. These rights include the right to reproduce the work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies, and to perform and display the work publicly.

To understand how these rights can be used or licensed, it’s helpful to analogize them to a bundle of sticks, where each stick represents a one of these rights. The copyright owner has the right to keep each “stick” for themselves, to transfer them individually to one or more people, or to transfer them collectively to one or more people. In short, copyright allows the owner to choose the ways his/her copyrighted works are made available to the public.

The basis for copyright protection stems directly from the U.S. Constitution. The Framers believed that securing the exclusive rights of authors to their writings for limited periods would “promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

The primary objective of copyright is to induce and reward authors, through the provision of property rights, to create new works and to make those works available to the public to enjoy. The theory is that, by granting certain exclusive rights to creators, which allow them to protect their creative works against theft, they receive the benefit of economic rewards and the public receives the benefit of the creative works that might not otherwise be created or disseminated.

While copyright law is intended to serve the purpose of enriching the general public through access to creative works, it’s important to understand that it imposes no obligation upon creators to make their copyrighted works available.

There are, of course, some limitations on the rights granted to copyright owners. Under certain circumstances, anyone can use a work without getting the copyright owner’s permission or paying the copyright owner to use it. Fair use is a good example of that, and you can find more information about fair use here.

There are three basic requirements that a work must meet to be protected by copyright. The work must be:

  • Original: To be original, a work must merely be independently created. In other words, it cannot be copied from another. There is no requirement that the work be novel (as in patent law), unique, imaginative or inventive. A work need only demonstrate a very small amount of creativity in order to meet the originality requirement. Very few creations fail to satisfy the minimum creativity requirement.
  • A Work of Authorship: To qualify as a work of authorship for the purposes of copyright protection, a work must be a product of creative expression that falls under a category of copyrightable subject matter. Copyrightable subject matter includes a wide range of works, including literary works, musical works, motion pictures and other audiovisual works, derivative works, compilations, and┬ámany others.
  • Fixed: To meet the fixation requirement a work must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Protection attaches automatically to an eligible work the moment the work is fixed. A work is considered to be fixed so long as it is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration.

These three requirements do not present difficult obstacles regarding copyright protection. In fact, unlike the requirements for protection under patent or trademark law, very few works that fall within the subject matter of copyright fail to satisfy all three of these requirements. And there is no requirement that a copyright owner register his/her work with the U.S. Copyright Office, or place a copyright notice on the work, to obtain copyright protection. However, there are numerous benefits associated with registering one’s work, and more information can be found here.

Generally, a copyrighted work is protected for the length of the author’s life plus another seventy years. In the case of joint works, copyright protection is granted for the length of the life of the last surviving joint creator plus another 70 years. Works made for hire, as well as anonymous and pseudonymous works, are protected for a term of either 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the year of creation, whichever is shorter. When the term of protection for a copyrighted work expires, the work enters into the public domain.