Copyright Basics

What is a copyright? Copyrights are a way for you to protect your creative material. Once you obtain a copyright, your work can't be used without your permission. As an independent contractor or freelancer, you usually own the rights to what you create, unless you sign a contract giving the rights to your client. If ownership is not stipulated in a contract, the creator owns the copyright to the work. Before you sign any contract, be sure you know who will own the work you create during your employment. Often times, the entity paying you will try to lay claim to all work, not just what you were hired to create during the term of the contract, so be on the lookout for that clause in all contracts. If you hire someone to create work for your business and you want to own it — public relations material or ad copy for example — you will want to have the agency or individual sign an agreement assigning rights to you.

Copyright protection is provided for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This means you cannot copyright an idea, only the expression of the idea.

The categories of copyrightable works include:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, and accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works
  • Sound recordings

Copyrights for works published after 1978 are limited in duration to a term of the life of the author plus 70 years. Works published before 1978 are protected for the life of the author plus 50 years. For work created by employees for hire, the term is between 95 and 120 years, depending on the date the work was published.

How to obtain copyright

You do not have to register with the U.S. Copyright office in order to have copyright protection. Rights commence upon creation of the work. Until 1989, a copyright owner was required to include a copyright notice on all products and failure to do so could result in a loss of copyright rights. That law no longer exists, and creators now own copyrights unless a contract states otherwise.

However, before you can start action against a copyright infringement, you must register a copyright claim. The filing fee for this infringement is approximately $30. The U.S. filing achieves rights in all countries that honor U.S. copyrights. The copyright office in Washington, DC can provide you with a list of these countries. If infringement occurs in another country, however, you must sue in that country.

Protecting your rights

To protect your copyright, write your name, the word "copyright", the copyright symbol ©, the date of publication and the name of either the author or owner of the copyright in the published work. Although this is not necessary by law, copyright lawyers consider it good practice. You should place the copyright notice somewhere that gives "reasonable notice" of its existence. For example, on the first page of a manuscript or on the label of a record.

If you publish something on a regular basis, such as a newsletter or magazine, you may be able to register a year's worth of work at one time. The possibility of what is called a "group registration" depends on whether or not all the work in the periodical is created by the same author. To find out more about group registration ask the copyright office for its publication, "Group Registration of Contributions to Periodicals".

Software copyrighting is a little more complicated because registering for a software copyright may make your source code available to anyone who wants to look at it. To protect yourself, you may want to patent portions of your code and have it blacked out in your copyright. For more information on copyrighting software, ask the copyright office for the publication on "Copyright Registration for Computer Programs".

Copyright myth

The myth about the efficacy of protecting work by mailing yourself a sealed copy of the work is just that — a myth. Mailing work to yourself does not provide protection because you could easily mail yourself empty envelopes and then open them and insert anything you want. Instead, you can protect yourself by having a notary public sign and date your work or by registering it with the copyright office.

How to avoid infringing on copyrights

If you find information in a magazine or online that you want to use for something you are creating, chances are you cannot, even if you pay to access it. For example, this column cannot be downloaded and used even though you pay to be online. The term "fair use" may be something you have heard. This rule says that portions of works may be reproduced for educational, news, commentary, or research without infringement under some circumstances. Fair use is decided on a case–by–case basis using the following criteria:

  • Purpose of use. For example, whether it is commercial or for nonprofit educational use
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The effect of the use upon the potential value of or market for the work
  • How much of the entire body of the work is used

Public domain information (work not covered by copyright) is typically federal government publications and work with an expired copyright. To determine if the material you would like to utilize falls within the "fair use" guidelines, call the Copyright Information Specialist Line at the Copyright Office at 202–707–5959.


For more information on copyrights, contact the Copyright Office Information Line at 202–707–3000 or write Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20559. To obtain an application, write to Applications, Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington DC 20402 or call 202–512–1530.

The previous content is provided by OPEN: The Small Business NetworkSM from American Express.

301 Moved Permanently

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