small business owners

What to Know About Claiming Copyright Status

3 min read • Jul 31, 2019 • Barry Eitel

The Constitution set the initial laws governing copyright in the United States. The laws have been strengthened and changed multiple times in the centuries since. They are essential for protecting creative works ranging from screenplays to software.

According to the US Copyright Office, copyright law covers “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” This coverage applies to both published and unpublished works. Your work is protected by US copyright law at the moment of creation, but you can opt to register it with the Copyright Office for various reasons.

Copyrights versus Trademarks versus Patents

Copyright laws aim to protect “original works of authorship,” i.e., whole-cloth creative works like artwork, literary works, or architectural works. A trademark must be registered with the government and covers company names, logos, and short slogans. A patent is for new inventions, procedures, or concoctions, like new medicines or plant varieties. If your work is creative in some way but is not a new invention, and if it goes beyond branding, copyright law most likely applies.  

What Copyright Protects

The US government says that copyright law protects works of authorship that include literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works. Artistic works include poetry, novels, films, songs, computer software, and architecture. There are some intricacies to the law—choreography, if notated, can be copyrighted, but an individual dance step probably cannot. If you have questions about whether your work is copyrightable, you should contact the Copyright Office or a copyright attorney.

Importantly, copyright does not protect ideas. Your creative idea must be expressed in some manner for it to be protected. Once you have turned your idea into a work of authorship, it is copyrighted.

Why Register Your Copyright?

As mentioned before, you do not have to register your work anywhere to be protected by US copyright law—the law applies from the moment of creation.

You may have heard about “poor man’s copyright,” where you mail a copy of your work to yourself to establish a creation date for the work. In some countries with weak copyright laws, this process might apply, but it is not necessary in the US, nor does it serve as a substitute for registering with the Copyright Office.

Registering your work with the Copyright Office provides very strong protection for your work. In fact, if you believe someone else is infringing on your work, you need to register a copyright to bring forth a lawsuit. If you are successful in your suit, there are also substantial differences in terms of financial awards for registered copyrights compared to unregistered ones.

Why Seek Legal Help?

A copyright attorney can be immensely helpful for understanding how to register your work. Using an online service like LegalZoom is inexpensive (pricing starts at $114 plus federal filing fees) and ensures your work has the maximum protection.

And if you believe your work has been infringed upon, it is crucial to seek the advice of a lawyer.

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Barry Eitel

Barry Eitel has written about business and technology for eight years, including working as a staff writer for Intuit's Small Business Center and as the Business Editor for the Piedmont Post, a weekly newspaper covering the city of Piedmont, California.