What is a copyright? The idea behind it? And what exactly does a copyright protect?
What is it?
A copyright protects original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Basically, copyrights apply to works of art or works of creativity that are reduced to some tangible form. It literally is the right to copy a work.
The holder (or owner) of a copyright is the exclusive person that can copy, reproduce, reuse, modify or distribute that work. They own all the right to copy the work or to use it in any other form.
The idea behind it?
Copyrights came about to protect and promote creativity and encourage new artistic endeavors. If artists and creatives didn’t have the sense their work could be protected, then there would be little incentive for people to create new things if someone could easily steal it.
The most common things that copyrights apply to are books, paintings, photography, movies, sculptures, architecture, and computer programs. This applies to your business with things such as the content on your website, photos or videos you created, Ebooks or regular books, and marketing collateral. All of that usually has some creative element in it and is therefore protected by copyrights.
You’re able to register a copyright with the U.S. copyright office. Though, even without registering a copyright, you have a copyright as soon as the work is created and fixed in that tangible form. Copyrights aren’t forever. When the creator or the author is an individual then the copyright goes on 70 years after their death. After 70 years following the death then the work goes into the public domain and is free to use for the public to use. A few examples of popular work that are in the public domain are the alphabet song, Amazing Grace, America the Beautiful, and Romeo and Juliet. Though keep in mind that when using works in the public domain that new works based off those can have a brand new copyright. For example, Romeo and Juliet is in the public domain. Certainly, we all remember the movie featuring Claire Dans and Leonardo DiCaprio from the late 90’s. That recreation of Romeo and Juliet is not in the public domain. So even though you can use the title “Romeo and Juliet” and the story of it, you cannot use clips from the 90’s recreation since it is still under copyright protection.
Something interesting happened a while back that really changed the landscape of copyright protection. In 1998, Disney made a big push to change some copyright laws in an effort to protect Mickey Mouse. At the time, works that were published prior to 1978 were going to be protected for 75 years. Works published after 1978 were going to protect for 50 years following the death of the author. Mickey first came on the screen in 1928 so he was set to enter the public domain in 2004. At that time it would’ve been free for us all to use. Wanting to prevent this, Disney and others managed to get the laws changed. So in 1998, the rules changed from 50 years following the death of the author to 70 years following the death of the author. Due to that, Mickey won’t enter the public domain until 2024.
Keep in mind:
Copyrights don’t protect concepts, Ideas, processes, or systems. They only protect the physical representation of those things. Let’s say you create a cool infographic to demonstrate some new system you developed. The infographic itself is a creative work which is protectable by copyright. So, no one can use your image because it would be copyright protected. Though the process or the ideas behind it are not protected. Also, copyright protection only pertains to things that are fixed in a tangible medium. Let’s say you’re an awesome musician and you play the guitar. You create some great guitar riff while you’re jamming out with your friends. If the guitar riff exists only in your head, then there is no copyright protection. If you’re playing in front of your friends and a friend goes to record that exact song, you unfortunately still don’t have protection against that. Only if you record the song, either by recording the audio or reducing it to sheet music, is it eligible to be protected by copyright.
Copyright registration has some benefits to it even though it’s not truly required. Copyright protection under common law starts as soon as the work is created and fixed in the tangible form. You don’t have to do registering or mail it in. But you can’t really do anything about it unless you register the copyright with the US Copyright Office. Copyrights must be registered in order to bring a federal claim of copyright infringement. If you have common-law copyright, you cannot file a federal claim. Registering the copyright also makes you eligible for statutory damages and attorney fees. The federal copyright law assigns set damages and awards, as well as attorney fees. Though that’s only if the copyright is registered. While you don’t necessarily have to register a copyright to have copyright protection, it’s a great idea so you can enjoy the additional benefits from registering it.