Overview of Copyright Law

Copyright gives a person the exclusive right to sell, reproduce, publish and/or distribute musical, artistic, or literary works. The ownership right is giving to the author of an original work that has been fixed in a tangible medium (i.e. recorded, taped, written, etc). The protection granted under the copyright law attaches as soon as the work has been “fixed” or recorded for the first time. If someone copies a work that is not his/her own original idea, the other person has an infringement claim.

Even though works are secured once they are created, there are many benefits of registering with the U.S. Copyright Office.  A copyright may be registered at anytime during the life of the copyright; however, there are some incentives to register works early. Upon registration, there is a public record of the copyright claim. An infringement suit can only be filed if the work has been registered. For works that are registered before or within five years of publication, the registration is first-hand evidence in court of the validity of the copyright. In situations where a work has been registered within three months of publication or prior to an infringement of a work, statutory damages and attorney fees will be available to the copyright owner. In other situations, only actual damages and profits will be available to the copyright owner.

More so, there are some exceptions to the exclusive right of ownership of a work. Basically, there are some uses of a copyrighted original work that will not constitute copyright infringement. For instance, the work has entered into the public domain, the material is factual or just an idea and thus not copyrightable, the use falls within a recognized exception like classroom teaching exception, or if the use is consider fair use. The fair use exception considers that some uses of work are fair such as news reporting, teaching, research, criticism and more. In determining fair use of a copyrighted work, the courts will weigh the following factors: the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; the effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.

Registration of a copyright is not a difficult process. There are three basic elements involved which are: a completed application form, a non-refundable filing fee, and a non-refundable deposit (i.e. a copy or copies of the work being registered). Basic registration claims include single works, multiple unpublished works if they are all by the same author(s) and owned by the same claimant (e.g. songs compiled on a CD), or multiple published works if they are all first published in the same publication on the same date and owned by the same claimant.

There was a point in time when visual copyright notice was required. Authors were required to attach the copyright symbol © to their works. It is no longer required, but it is helpful to alert the public of the works protected status.  If an infringement issue is raised, the notice will serve as proof that the infringer was aware that the work was copyrighted.

Copyright helps protect the original ideas of authors. As stated, the work is automatically protected once created, but registration with the copyright office is proven to be very beneficial if an infringement dispute arises.


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