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Copyrights 101

Copyright is a form of intellectual property that protects original works. It is occasionally confused with trademarks or patents. However, copyright is quite different from other IPs. Here's why:

In our first post in the small business and IPs series, we took a deep dive into trademarks. Some of the topics we explored included the definition of a trademark, the best time to file a trademark application, and basic guidelines for registering a trademark.

The second part of this series focuses on copyrights. This form of intellectual property is occasionally confused with trademarks, and sometimes even patents, as having the same functions. However, a copyright protects original works, which are quite different from what other IPs protect. Here’s what we’ll learn about copyrights as we wrap up this miniseries:

  1. What is a copyright?
  2. Original works of authorship protected by copyrights.
  3. Basic tips for registering a copyright.
  4. The duration of copyright protection.

What is a Copyright?

The U.S. Copyright Office defines a copyright as “a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”

A copyright is a form of intellectual property protection for original works of authorship. It exists the moment the work is created. The creator of the original works is considered its author. And the tangible medium bit? We’ll detail a bit more about the types of original works protected by copyrights in a moment.

Registering for copyright means that published original works receive protection. This is also applicable to unpublished original works, too. According to copyright law, the original creative expression is the work of its author whether it is published or not.

Is there anything a copyright cannot protect?

The U.S. Copyright Office is clear to note that one may not copyright facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation. And copyright is unable to protect forms of IP such as business names, logos, slogans, and designs. These fall under the category of trademark registration.

Copyrights Protect These Original Works of Authorship

What categories qualify as original works of authorship? These are the types of works one may expect to file for copyright registration, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.

1. Literary Works

How are these works defined? Literary works explain, describe, or narrate a particular subject, theme, or idea. This is done through using narrative, descriptive, or explanatory text. A literary work should be read rather than performed.

Types of literary works that may receive copyright protection: Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, articles, and periodicals.

2. Performing Arts

How are these works defined? Performing arts are works performed for an audience.

Types of performing arts that may receive copyright protection: Music, lyrics, sound recordings, scripts, and stage plays.

3. Visual Arts

How are these works defined? Visual arts range in pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works as well as architectural works.

Types of visual arts that may receive copyright protection: Artwork, illustrations, jewelry, fabric, and architecture. Artwork may include paintings and sculptures.

4. Motion Pictures

How are these works defined? Motion pictures, as works, contain a series of related images that may be shown using a projector or digital display. Showing these images in successive order creates an impression of movement that is perceptible to the eye.

Types of motion pictures that may receive copyright protection: Movies, TV shows, video games, animation, and videos.

5. Photographs

How are these works defined? Photographs that receive copyright protection include photos created with a camera, captured in a digital file, or using another visual medium like film. Both color and black and white photographs may receive copyright protection.

Types of photographs that may receive copyright protection: News photos, wedding photos, family photos, and selfies.

6. Other Digital Content

How are these works defined? Digital content ranges in copyright protection for works that are used with computers, tablets, smartphones, and other electronic devices. Digital content also includes works distributed online through websites or blogs.

Types of digital content that may receive copyright protection: Computer programs, databases, websites, and blogs.

Why Should I File a Copyright?

Now that you understand what a copyright is and the original works it protects, you may begin the process of copyright registration.

… But why? After all, copyright protection goes into effect as soon as the work is created, right?

It’s true that your work is protected the moment it is created. However, you should still consider registering your copyright. Doing so makes it possible for you to file a lawsuit if someone infringes on your copyright, and acts as evidence that you are the work’s genuine bonafide creator.

How to Register a Copyright

Now that you understand why registering your copyright is in your best interest, get started by following these guidelines:

1. Conduct a Copyright Search

This first step in copyright registration is just like registering a trademark. Conduct a search through the U.S. Copyright Office’s public catalog. You may search for copyrights registered from 1978 to the present and may search by title, name, keyword, registration number, document number, or command keyword.

Why conduct a copyright search? This search ensures you are not accidentally infringing upon any existing registered copyrights. If you find out that your copyright is unique, you may begin filing an application to register the copyright.

2. Consult a Copyright Attorney

Do you have outstanding questions surrounding copyright laws? For example, you may be curious as to what the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) is and how it protects the rights of online copyright owners. Or you may have questions about the “poor man’s copyright” practice.

The best advice is to consult a copyright attorney. Review these questions, as well as any other questions you may have, and get the answers prior to starting the registration process.

3. File a Copyright Application

Registering a copyright is fairly straightforward. Complete the application form, pay the filing fee, and include a nonreturnable copy of the work to be registered. The U.S. Copyright Office notes that copies of work submitted will not be returned to owners. Only one work may be registered per application.

Need some extra help? You may work alongside a third-party service like MyCorporation. We can assist you in protecting your original works of authorship with assistance in filing your copyright application and handling all necessary paperwork.

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

Upon receiving your copyright certificate from the Copyright Office, you will officially have a registered copyright for your original works. This ensures nobody can infringe upon your copyright.

What does the lifespan look like for a registered copyright? Works that are created by an individual receive copyright protection that lasts for the entire life of the author. An additional 70 years is added to that timeline to ensure the creator receives exclusive rights to their intellectual property both throughout their lifetime and posthumously.

Deborah Sweeney is the CEO of MyCorporation.com. MyCorporation is a leader in online legal filing services for entrepreneurs and businesses, providing start-up bundles that include corporation and LLC formation, registered agent, DBA, and trademark & copyright filing services. MyCorporation does all the work, making the business formation and maintenance quick and painless, so business owners can focus on what they do best. Follow her on Twitter @deborahsweeney and @mycorporation.

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