Do you remember a time when people would make the news for stealing a company’s copyrighted material? One of my most vivid memories growing up was watching the TV, only to see that someone—an ordinary person! A GRANDMOTHER for crying out loud!—was being sued for thousands of dollars after “stealing” a record company’s music using (the then pirate-friendly) Napster.
I guess I’m really dating myself here, but the point is: Copyrights are Big Business. A single copyright can be worth thousands, if not millions, of dollars to a person or a company.But, how do they work?! Who owns a copyright? Why would someone ever want to sue Jane Doe for taking an itty-bitty music file? Am I next in line to be sued? There are lots of things to be answered about copyright…but we need to have a strong basis in what copyright is before we can get into the juicy details of enforcing them.
Today’s installment of Law 101: ©onquering ©opyright aims to take a step back and teach you basics of copyright law. By learning the basics of copyright first, we will create a valuable and helpful foundation for understanding more difficult and often highly debated topics later. Let’s jump right in, shall we?
Copyright: Just a Big, Ol’ Bundle of Sticks
A copyright is a form of intellectual property that attaches to different types of artistic expression. While a lot of people (including myself, pre-law school) would consider a copyright to be a single form of legal protection, the best way to visualize a copyright is as a bundle of rights that are granted to the copyright’s creator. As my copyrights professors would say: “Think of a Copyright as a bundle of sticks.” Upon hearing that statement, it was my natural inclination to laugh it off…”bundle of sticks…why not a bundle of something cooler…like a bundle of velociraptors…” (Of which, I began to doodle…but I digress). Seriously, though, their “bundle of sticks” visualization ended up being a trick that not only got me through copyrights class, but also a lot of my other property classes. And here, in all of its brightly-colored glory, I present to you the following:
A Copyright is Just a Big Ol’ Bundle of (Multicolored) Sticks.
When you create a copyright, the US Government’s Copyright Office hands you, the creator, a beautiful bouquet of rights that look something like this:
With every copyright you own, you simultaneously have:
- the right to reproduce the copyrighted work
- the right to prepare derivative works
- the right to distribute copies of the copyrighted work
- the right to publicly perform the copyrighted work; and
- the right to publicly display the work
Just like flowers in a bouquet…or sticks in a bundle…or [insert cool object] in [equally cool grouping here], you have the ability to hand off each individual right (or rights) to other people. You also have the ability to keep all the rights to yourself, if you so choose. The world is your oyst…err…bundle of multicolored sticks!
For example: Let’s say you created an epic story that follows the life of a young boy, turned wizard, who encounters a number of obstacles in his new world of magic. That book would have a valid copyright associated with the story, among other things (trust me on this for now, we’ll get into what material is covered under copyright shortly).
You, as the book’s author, have the ability to sell or license any of the sticks in your bundle of rights to other people or companies. Want to make copies of the book and distribute it for consumption by the masses? License the rights to make copies and distribute the book to a publisher. Want to translate the book into multiple languages or make a movie based on the writing? License the right to make derivative works. And so on, and so forth. Or, keep the rights to yourself. As the copyright owner, you choose.
Obviously, not every person or company will be happy with a license agreement…and, in fact, they may only be interested in purchasing the entire bundle of rights from you. These are things that are determined when you actually start negotiations for the rights to your copyrighted work. Just do me a favor when you do, and get yourself a lawyer who can help you negotiate for the best deal.
What Does a Copyright Protect?
Now that we know that copyright is a bundle of rights, it’s important to understand what types of material those rights cover.
You may not realize this, but you have created a stockpile of copyrights in your lifetime. When a stroke of creative genius strikes, a copyright is not far in tow. Your photographs, your drawings, your music compositions and recordings, your movies, and other creations are all subject to the protections that US Copyright Law provides. Pretty cool, huh?
According to current Copyright Law:
Copyright protection subsists […] in original works of authorship 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…
In plain English: Copyright attaches to original, artistic expression in any fixed, tangible medium. So long as you jot those literary musings down, record that beautiful music you composed, or print out or store those photos you took, you have something that is copyrightable in the eyes of the law. These things are all copyrightable, so long as these displays of artistic expression are your own. Sorry, folks, you can’t free-ride off of someone else’s creation and expect to get copyright protection! (But, we’ll save that for another day when we talk about infringement…)
I Have Some Great Ideas! Those lyrics to my next love ballad and storyline to my next great novel are swimming around in my head somewhere…Are These Copyrightable too?!
In short…NO. Sorry! Copyrights—and, well, Intellectual Property in general—can never protect an “idea” you have stored in your head. To gain any intellectual property protection, you need to get those ideas out of your head and into something that is tangible. Otherwise, how will we know what you’re trying to protect?
In the case of copyright law:
In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.
So, get to work. Write it down, take those pictures, record those songs. If someone does it first? As the old saying goes: “You snooze, you lose.”
Bu..But…The Thing I’m Making Isn’t Artistic At All! It’s Completely Different! Now What?
Even if the things you create are not subject to copyright protection, don’t worry! All hope is not lost! There are different types of intellectual property that correspond with the ways you express your ideas. What you create will determine which type of intellectual property applies and the corresponding procedure you need to follow in order to receive protection. Don’t forget: aside from copyrights, you also have trademarks, patents and trade secrets to choose from!
I Have Copyrightable Material…Cool. Do I Need to Say any Magic Words to get Copyright Protection for it?
It’s really easy: all you need to do is tap your heels together three times, turn in a circle twice and yell “COPYRIGHT!!” as loud as you can.
I’ll wait here while you do that…
Before you leap out of your chair and scare the person sitting next to you, I’ll let you in on a little secret: You Already Have a Copyright! It’s been with you since you put that pen to the page, that guitar up to the microphone, made that last brush stroke on that canvas and snapped the picture with your camera. As the original owner of that fixed, tangible artistic work? You own the rights to it. You automatically have that theoretical bundle of rights.
If I Have a Copyright for my Work Already…Why Should I Register with the Copyright Office?
Having a copyright for your original work doesn’t automatically give you the ability to walk into a courtroom tomorrow and sue someone who used your work against your wishes. In order to enforce a copyright, or in other words, in order to sue someone for the improper use of your copyright, you need to register your work with the US Copyright Office first.
Registering with the US Copyright Office gives notice to the US Government (and to the entire population of the United States) that your work exists. Think of it as a giant flag marking your territory. Once registration is completed, anyone who crosses into your marked territory without permission may be legally stopped from doing so.
Registration is relatively easy and inexpensive to do, and it can be worth its weight in gold—depending on what the copyright holder is looking to protect. The Copyright Office is now tech-savvy, and allows people to register works online. After filling out the online form, the author is required to send a physical, non-returnable copy of the work to the copyright office. The most interesting thing about this process is that your registered copyrights end up HERE:
…and if that’s not exciting, I don’t know what is!
Let’s get real here: It would be an expensive venture to register every creation you ever make. A wise solution to that problem is to think about registering the works that could potentially attract infringers in the future (think: quality over quantity). In any case, speaking to an IP Lawyer can help you sort out all of the questions you could ever have about deciding to register a copyright. Not only that, but they’ll register the copyright for you!
A NOTE ABOUT REGISTRATION: It’s important to note here that registration only grants you protection nationally. If you are hoping to protect your work from people outside the US, you are going to need to check into each country’s individual laws and policies. It’s a long and difficult process if you wanted to do that…but, hey, that’s what lawyers are for. We read and translate the legalese so you don’t have to!
How Long Does My Copyright Last?
Over the past few decades, the protections associated with a copyright have changed considerably. Generally, for works created after January 1, 1978, a copyright lasts for the life of the author + 70 years. If you created something before 1978, there are other rules that need to be followed (for anyone interested, these rules can be found here). Additionally, there are other rules and time restrictions for anonymous works, pseudonymous works and works for hire (which we’ll discuss in the future). After this time period runs, the work is placed into the public domain where it can be enjoyed by the masses without any legal restrictions.
Closing Thoughts on Copyright
Now that you know the basics of copyright, we can move on to bigger and more problematic topics in this area of the law. In the future, we’ll be able to discuss infringement, fair use, works for hire, and a bunch of other topics that all build off of these basic building blocks of copyright.
In the meantime, some takeaways for anyone reading this lesson should be:
- BE ORIGINAL: If you want the Copyright protection, you need to make sure your work is fresh and creative! Think outside the box!
- PUT IT DOWN ON PAPER: Ideas just won’t do! Make sure you turn those ideas into things we can see and experience!
- REGISTER! REGISTER! REGISTER! If you create something that you think has real potential, don’t just sit there: register it with the US Copyright Office!
- HIRE AN IP LAWYER: These are trained professionals who can help you sort out all of your intellectual property needs. If Copyright doesn’t fit your creation, some other type of intellectual property might instead.
And..that’s it! Catch you next time when we explore the exciting world of Trademarks!