What is a copyright? A copyright is a type of intellectual property protection for original works of authorship. Copyrights protect original literary or artistic works. A copyright is the exclusive legal right given to an originator (or an assignee) to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, and prepare derivative works based on the work. In addition, this protection gives the owner the right to let others exercise these exclusive rights (license), subject to certain statutory limitations. You can register your copyright yourself, but Carson Patents offers copyright registration help.

By definition, in contrast with patents and trademarks, a copyright protects an original work as soon as the author “fixes the work in a tangible form of expression.” In other words, when you or someone working for you creates and posts, publishes, or prints the work, it is protected by copyright. This automatic protection applies in most countries in accordance with the Berne Convention. Also, artistic and literary works made after March 1, 1989 do not require the “©” symbol because of the Berne Convention.

Internationally, what is a copyright? Internationally, the Berne Convention protects literary and artistic works applicable in many countries. First adopted in 1886 in Berne, Switzerland, the purpose was to make copyright protection span across multiple countries, called Contracting States. The three basic principles included in the Berne Convention are that works must have the same protection in Contracting States as in where the work was created, protection is automatic once the work is created, and protection does not rely on whether there is protection in the country where the work was created.

The Convention recognizes rights of authorization such as the right to translate, broadcast, perform, recite, make reproductions, and make adaptations and arrangements of the work. Also included in the Berne Convention is the duration of copyright protection. Under the Berne Convention, works are protected for 50 years after the author’s death (some exceptions apply). For more information, visit WIPO.

In the U.S., a copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. Registration of a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office is not mandatory, but it can offer enhanced protection. In fact, registering to get a copyright issued for your new original work offers several advantages. Copyright protection gives the owner the right to let others exercise these exclusive rights (license), subject to certain statutory limitations, and includes benefits such as having a public record of the claim, the ability to file a copyright lawsuit in federal court, and receiving return of legal fees for infringement claims if you win a suit.

Read more about how to get a copyright yourself. However, if you want help, Carson Patents is available to help you get your copyright registered. Check out our copyright attorney page.

Uncopyrightable Creative Works

There are some things that are still creative works but that are not able to be registered for a copyright. Things like titles, names, short phrases, slogans, symbols, listings of contents or ingredients, and mere variations of font and coloring are not considered creative and thus are not copyrightable. However, while these things are not suitable for copyright registration, you may be able to protect these things with a trademark. Read more about trademarks on our trademark services page.

While there may be some documents and instructions that might benefit from copyright registration, a copyright does not protect ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries. However, for these uncopyrightable things, you may be able to protect these things with a patent. Read more about patent on our patent services page.

The time period that copyright protection lasts depends on the date that the work was created in a tangible form. For example, anything created after January 1, 1978 has protection for the life of the author plus 70 years. There are, however, exceptions to this rule:

  • Anonymous work
  • Pseudonymous (written under a false name) work
  • Works made for hire (works made by an employee for his or her job)

These exception works last for a term of 95 years from the first publication or 120 years from creation – whichever expires first.

Anything created prior to January 1, 1978 that is not in the public domain and that has not been claimed has the same duration as works created after this date (for the life of the author plus 70 years). In addition, the duration of protection for such a work will not expire before December 31, 2002; and, if it is published on or before December 31, 2002, the duration of protection shall not expire before December 31, 2047. Unpublished and unclaimed works can present complications. Consult a copyright attorney for help before registering a copyright for older unpublished and unclaimed works.

Copyright infringement is when someone breaks the law and uses the work of another without permission. If someone uses your work without your permission, they are likely infringing. In fact, infringement is a federal crime if your original creation is registered for a copyright. Consult with an attorney experienced in copyright law and infringement if you suspect your work has been infringed or you know that someone is infringing on your work.

Important Tip: Infringement can occur whether or not the person infringing did it by mistake or on purpose. Infringing on intellectual property can be accidental or unknowing. We highly recommend consulting with an intellectual property attorney experienced in copyright law if you have any questions.