Copyright Basics

Many business owners have become astute about the critical need to protect their intellectual property with patents and trademark registrations. However, copyrights tend to get overlooked.

Copyrights are a fundamental aspect of intellectual property protection. Relatively speaking, registrations are easy and inexpensive to obtain, yet they provide strong protections. Working with an intellectual property attorney may be the best way to ensure that your company is taking full advantage of the protections that are afforded by copyrights.


What Is a Copyright?

Basically, a copyright protects an original work by an author. A person who holds a copyright has the sole authority to distribute, display, modify, copy or perform the work. Most people know that a book can be copyrighted, but so can articles in online formats and in magazines. The same is true for photographs, paintings, sculptures, plays, movies, music videos, ballets, songs, architectural drawings, computer software source code and many other materials.

Several of the items that are created and used within the course of business may be protected by copyright. This can include flyers, promotional materials, blogs, product packaging, content on the company website, jingles used in advertising and more.

The owner of the copyright is the only individual or entity that has the right to use, modify and distribute the protected materials. Anyone else who wishes to use the material in whole or in part must seek and obtain permission to do so from the copyright holder. If they fail to do this, then they may be prosecuted for copyright infringement.

How Do You Get a Copyright?

As soon as a work is recorded in some tangible form, it enjoys immediate copyright protection in the U.S. The moment your website is ready to be published or your marketing materials are ready for distribution, they are protected.

Registration is not required, but it is recommended. Registration provides enhanced protection. It’s possible for authors to apply for copyright protection through the website of the U.S. Copyright Office. Fees of between $35 and $55 are due at the time of application. The office will request that a copy of the work to be registered be submitted for review and for them to keep on file.

Registrations generally are issued within a few weeks or months. On some occasions, the office will have additional questions about the work or about whether or not the work is suitable for copyright registration. An intellectual property attorney can handle this process for you.

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

If your work is new and was published on or after January 1, 1978, then the work is protected by U.S. copyright law for the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. If the work was not authored by an individual, but by a corporation or other entity, then it is entitled to 120 years of protection from the date of creation or 95 years of protection from the date of publication. In this case, the earlier date would prevail.

Works that are older than these time limits are said to be in the “public domain.” As an example, Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876. This means that it is subject to earlier U.S. copyright law. Anything published prior to January 1, 1923 is officially in the public domain. This means that if you want to record Tom Sawyer as an audiobook or adapt it as a play, you are free to do so.

Are There International Copyrights?

International copyrights do not exist at this time. It may be useful to know that the Universal Copyright Convention and the Berne Convention do help to honor copyrighted works on an international level, and that the U.S. is a member of both conventions.

If you have more questions about copyrights or about how to obtain a copyright registration on one of your original works, then contact Jeff Williams, an experienced intellectual property attorney.

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Author: Jeff Williams

Jeff Williams is an experienced mechanical engineer and lawyer that consults closely with clients in a strait forward and clear manner. He brings a particular set of strengths and unique perspectives to the firm.

Jeff received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Arizona State University in 2005. He was an engineer for a number of years at a number of large corporations before pursuing his law degree. He graduated from Texas A&M University School of Law (formerly Texas Wesleyan University School of Law) with a J.D. in 2010. By combining his education and prior work experience into the field of intellectual property law, Jeff has developed key skills to fully assist clients.