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A rundown of basic copyright protection

Artists of all genres know that there is perhaps no better feeling in the world than putting the finishing touches on a long gestating project, whether that's bringing a story to an end, appending the final notes to a score, putting the brush to the canvas one last time or developing the last photograph for an upcoming show.

Given the time, money and emotional energy put into creating a piece of work, artists naturally want to do everything in their power not just to share it with the world, but also protect it from being usurped by a third party who played no part in bringing the vision to life.

The good news is that works are protected by copyright law. To many, however, this phrase may seem a bit nebulous.

Understanding basic copyright law

Under U.S. law, the creators of "original works of authorship" that are fixed in virtually any medium of creative expression-from numbers and notes to pictures and words-are entitled to copyright protection.

Such copyright protection extends to works in the artistic, architectural, audiovisual, dramatic, literary and musical realm to name only a handful.

It's important to understand that works-whether published or unpublished-is automatically protected upon creation, such that it acquires a copyright as soon as it's fixed in "copy or a phonorecord for the first time."

In simpler terms, this means that in order to secure copyright, it is unnecessary to register or take any other action with the U.S. Copyright Office.

As to the length of a copyright, the law generally provides that any work created by an individual author, which is registered and published on or after January 1, 1978, is protected by copyright from the moment of creation up until 70 years after the author's death.

In fact, these same protections apply regardless of whether the work is ever published or registered.

Basic copyright protections

The 1976 Copyright Act provides the copyright owner with the following exclusive rights:

  • Adaptation
  • Distribution
  • Public displays
  • Public performance

In addition, these exclusive rights are considered freely transferrable, such that owners can do any of the following with their work:

  • License it to interested parties
  • Sell it to interested parties
  • Donate it to a charity of choice
  • Leave it to heirs

While there are certain limitations to these exclusive rights, if a valid copyright is infringed upon a copyright holder, there is a host of available remedies, including the granting of preliminary and permanent injunctions, monetary damages and destruction of any offending items.

Why bother registering a copyright?

Since it's seemingly unnecessary to take any action with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to secure copyright protection, why is there a need to register one?

Interestingly, the federal government suggests that all copyright owners consider registering for the following reasons:

  • It establishes a public record
  • It allows for the filing of an infringement suit and serves as prima facie evidence of copyright validity (if made within five years of publication)
  • It enables registration with the U.S. Customs Service to guard against importation of illegal copies of your work
  • It allows you to secure both statutory damages and attorney fees in court actions (if made within three months of publication or prior to infringement)

Copyright law is complex. Individuals interested in learning more or have questions about this issue or possible infringement, speaking with an experienced legal professional in this arena is advised.

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