The Lowdown on the Big ©

Copyright and How it Applies to You

COPYRIGHT is a small, inconspicuous symbol that packs a big punch – one that can put you into a financial knockout. Owners have the right, by federal and international law, to protect their published or unpublished original works of authorship against unauthorized usage. Anyone who breaches these rights can be held liable. Lawsuits, fines, loss of intellectual property, and in some cases, criminal action such as imprisonment can incur. There are five specific rights that a copyright holder is entitled to: reproduction, modification, publication, performance, and public display of the work.

Understanding copyright basics is fundamental for anyone who is involved in “creating, licensing, selling, or buying creative products.”* For anyone interested in knowing all there is to know about the different facets of copyright can read all thirteen chapters contained in Title 17 of the United States Code. And for those that have a little less time on their hands, here are some copyright basics.

What does the term “original works of authorship” mean?
“The term ‘original works of authorship’ means that the work owes its origin to the author and possesses a minimal level of creativity. Because of its subjective nature, the threshold for creativity is extremely low and it varies with the different types of works. Musical arrangements, along with scientific works, typically require higher levels of creativity to obtain copyright protection, while fiction needs less. The more creative the work, the more protection it has.”*

What works are copyright protected?
Copyrightable works include the following:
1. Literary works, including books, magazines, ad copy, and computer programs
2. Musical works, including any accompanying words (songs)
3. Dramatic works, including any accompanying music (plays, skits)
Pantomimes and choreographic works (dance)
5. Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works (paintings, designs)
6. Motion pictures and other audiovisual works (films)
7. Sound recordings, including CD, Cassette, or Digital Audio Tape, or MP3
8. Architectural works

How does my work become copyrighted?
The work is copyrighted the moment it is created and “fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”** If you wish, you can take it a step further and register your original work.

How do I note copyright in my work?
Position your copyright notation in a location that gives reasonable notification of your copyright claim. That notation will consist of 3 elements:
1. the © symbol, or the “Copyright” spelled out in full-form, or abbreviated “Copr.”;
2. the year the work was first published; and
3. the name of the owner of copyright or an abbreviation that is generally recognized.
Example: ©2009 Jean Peterson Design
For further information and details on the notice of copyright, please refer to Chapter 4 of Title 17.

How do I register my work to be copyrighted?
Registering your work is completely voluntary. Failure to register your original work will subject you to limitations of copyright law and in the event of infringement, it may cost you attorney fee recovery as well as loss of statutory damages. The only time you are required to register is if your work’s rights have been violated and you wish to file a lawsuit. You can register your original work online at http://www.copyright.gov/register/index.html. Or you may visit the Copyright Office located in Washington DC.

What if I want to use an original work for my own usage, how do I go about getting permission and/or a licensing agreement?
First check to see if the work has been registered with the Copyright Office. There you will be able to find the author’s name. If it hasn’t been registered, you will have a bit of leg work to do, but likely the source where you found the work will either list the author or it will be obvious. Contact the author for permission and if a licensing agreement is required, be specific on the terms of usage, such as: where, when, how, and the quantity of the usage. Keep in mind, registered works prior to 1978 can only be found in the Copyright Public Records Reading Room.

Is there a difference between copyright and trademarks and patents?
As you have now learned, copyright protects original works of authorship. Whereas a trademark protects logos, images, symbols, phrases, words or designs identifying a service or goods from one party and that differentiates themselves from competitors. And a patent protects discoveries and inventions.

United States Copyright Office

US Patent and Trademark Office

*From the Copyright Primer authored by Astrachan Gunst Thomas, P.C., Baltimore MD

**United States Copyright Office


  1. Lisa!
    Excellent article on the ins-and-outs of copyright and usage. I think that this will be a great resource to have in your arsenal, as this topic seems to come up again and again in our profession. You and the team at JPD are doing a great job with this blog and keeping it informative and fun!

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