Federal copyright protection in the United States was established by the Constitution. Since the passage of the first Copyright Act in 1790 that permitted only "maps, charts and books" to be eligible for copyright protection, almost all original types of creative works fixed in a tangible medium are eligible for federal copyright protection (there are some exceptions). So what does "fixed in a tangible medium mean? It means the original work you create must be put on a medium that enables it to be seen, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for more than a fleeting moment.
What is Copyright?
Copyright is a property right that provides the copyright owner with the exclusive right to: (1) reproduce, (2) sell, (3) lease, (4) rent, (5) distribute, (6) perform, (7) display, and (8) create new derivative versions from the work. A minor exception exists for computer programs, which under Section 117 of the U.S. Copyright Act grants the user of a computer program the right to create a copy to upload it onto the computer or preserve it for archival purposes. In other words, copyright affords its owner the right to prevent others from copying or selling the work without permission.
What Does Copyright Protect?
Copyright protects the original tangible expression of the author's idea(s) in things such as writings, paintings, photographs, sound recordings, motion pictures, music recordings, graphics, and computer programs. Copyright protects the means by which the author describes, expresses, or illustrates the idea. Copyright does not protect the idea itself and cannot prevent others from using the idea(s) or information revealed by the work. Copyright also does not protect discoveries, concepts, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, or principles revealed in the author's work.
To qualify for copyright protection, the work must meet these two requirements: (1) originality and (2) fixation in some tangible form. To satisfy the "originality" requirement, the work need not be novel, but it must contain a modicum of creativity and not be copied from some other work. To satisfy the "fixation" requirement the work must be placed in some medium from which it can be seen, read, or heard for more than an instant.
Who Owns the Copyright?
The initial owner of the copyright, unless the work is a work made for hire, is the individual or entity who authored or created the work, e.g. the photographer, graphic artist, software programmer, writer, artist, or composer. In the case of a "work made for hire", the employer for whom the work was made during and within the scope of employment is the initial owner.
How Do I Get Copyright Protection?
A common misperception is that something must be done to get copyright protection to exist, e.g. mailing the work to yourself or registration with the United States Copyright Office. This is false. In fact, copyright protection automatically exists from the moment of creation for any work that satisfies the originality and fixation requirements discussed above. However, although copyright protection automatically exists, and although copyright registration is no longer required to protect a published work, there are significant benefits for the copyright owner to register his or her copyright.
What are the Benefits to Registering A Copyright?
Although Copyright protection is immediate and automatic for any original work fixed in a tangible medium of expression, failure to register the copyright with the United States Copyright Office may hinder the copyright owner's ability to sue and to collect statutory damages. Under the law, the copyright owner must register the work with the Copyright Office before bringing a lawsuit for copyright infringement. And if the copyright owner registers the work within three months from the date of first publication, or at least before any infringement occurs, the copyright owner can collect statutory damages from the infringer. Failure to register within this time frame means the court may only award the copyright owner actual damages, which depending upon the circumstances, may be nominal or difficult to prove.
How Long Does Copyright Protection last?
Unfortunately it is not always so easy to determine whether a work is still protected by Copyright. This is because the laws have changed over the years and different rules apply depending on the date the work was created and the type of author. For works created today, Copyright protection lasts for the duration of the author's life plus 70 years, unless the work is a work made for hire. If the work is a "work made for hire" (a work prepared by an employee within the scope of employment, or a certain type of specially commissioned work), then copyright protections lasts either for 95 years from the date of first "publication" (distribution of copies to the general public), or for 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.