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What is a copyright?

  • Copyright refers to the legal right of the owner of intellectual property. In simpler terms, copyright is the right to copy. This means that the original creators of products and anyone they give authorization to are the only ones with the exclusive right to reproduce the work.

A Copyright Owner's Rights:

The primary goal of copyright law is to protect the time, effort, and creativity of the work’s creator. As such, the Copyright Act gives the copyright owner certain exclusive rights, including the right to:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Prepare “derivative works” (other works based on the original work)
  • Distribute copies of the work by sale, lease, or other transfer of ownership
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly

The copyright owner also has the right to authorize other people to do any of the rights mentioned above. The copyright owner has the option and ability to transfer his or her exclusive rights — or any subdivision of those rights — to others as well. The Copyright Office does not have forms for these transfers, so a transfer of copyright is usually done through a contract. It is not legally required for a transfer to be recorded with the Copyright Office, but having a legal record of the transaction is often a good idea.

If an author or artist creates a work for a company or in the course of his or her employment, the creator is usually not the copyright owner. This situation is known as a “work made for hire,” and it gives copyright ownership to the employer or person who commissioned the work. A work made for hire situation can occur when an independent contractor is hired to create a particular work, or if the work is created by an employee while he or she is on the job. For example, if an employee writes articles for a company, the company is the copyright owner not the actual writer.

There are three basic requirements that a work must meet to be protected by copyright. The work must be:

To be original, a work must merely be independently created. In other words, it cannot be copied from something else. There is no requirement that the work be novel (as in patent law), unique, imaginative or inventive.

To satisfy the creativity requirement a work need only demonstrate a very small amount of creativity. Very few creations fail to satisfy this requirement.

To meet the fixation requirement, a work must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Protection attaches automatically to an eligible work the moment the work is fixed. A work is considered to be fixed as long as it’s sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration.

The Limits of Copyright Protection

  • Copyright law only covers the particular form or manner in which information or ideas have been manifested, known as the “form of material expression.” The law does not cover the actual ideas, concepts, facts, or techniques contained in the copyright work. For example, the Superman comic books are copyrighted, which means that they cannot be reproduced and distributed for sale without authorization from the copyright owner. The copyright also prohibits anyone else from creating similar works involving the Superman character present in the comic books. However, the copyright does not prohibit anyone from creating a work about a super-human character in general.

Keep in mind that things not covered by copyright law may be covered under other forms of intellectual property. For instance: ideas, procedures, methods, systems, and processes are not covered by copyrights, but they can be protected under patent law. Similarly, titles, names, slogans, and symbols cannot be copyrighted, but can be trademarked.