The general public sees artists, writers, and other creatives as people with a passion for making art in their field. Indeed, this is true for many creative people. However, savviness about copyright, trademark law, and other legal issues is vital if a creator wishes to craft a lasting career in their field. Whenever a creative person (or a business) creates a tangible product, they should consider if they can or should seek a registered copyright to protect the work. Copyright law protects creative works, and it’s such an established part of United States law that it’s named in the Constitution, which specifically protects creators’ “exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
The law provides an incentive for people to create new works by giving them ownership of their creations for a specific period of time. Having the exclusive right over their works means that the creator will be the only one to make money off of their work. However, while these rights are reserved to the creator exclusively, they are not all-inclusive. Exceptions are allowed for fair use of copyrighted material, which includes satire or material used in a critique of the work.
For a work to be eligible for a copyright, it has to be an original creation in a tangible form. The work must have been created independently by the creator. It does not necessarily have to have been published, though. A computer program that exists on its original server, a blog article, a recorded dance, a drawing, a film, sheet music, a recording of a song, and even a building are all examples of works that can be copyrighted. Things that do not have a tangible form cannot be copyrighted: For instance, a speech that was not recorded or written down would not be eligible for copyright protection.
There’s a lot of nuance in certain areas as to what can and can’t be copyrighted. A list of ingredients can’t be copyrighted, but a recipe with instructions does fall under copyright laws. A computer game can be copyrighted, but not the type or game or its aesthetic. You also can’t copyright common information that everyone knows that lacks a specific named author, like the calendar or a ruler.
Websites are another complicated area. You only own the copyright to the parts of the site you made, so if you hire someone to design a website for you, the design’s copyright is theirs, not yours. But any writings, photos, videos, or drawings that you create and upload are eligible for copyright protection.
Any country that signed the Berne Convention, an international agreement to protect copyrighted works, will grant a copyright upon creation of a work. However, in the United States, in order to be able to legally enforce a copyright, it must be formally registered. The rights granted by copyright protection include the right to reproduce the work, the right to display or perform the work, the right to distribute the work, and the right to create derivative works. Only the copyright holder can exercise these rights or grant them to another person or entity.
People wishing to formally obtain a copyright for their work must start by filing an application with the U.S. Copyright Office. The form can be mailed in or completed online. Either way, part of the copyright process is that a copy of the work must be submitted with the form. The copyright office has different rules about what a copy is and how many copies you need to submit depending on what sort of work is being copyrighted. All applicants must also pay an application fee. All information submitted to the copyright office becomes part of the public record.
A creator can lose their copyright in very specific instances. Selling a piece of work, for example, doesn’t mean that the creator has sold their rights; if an artist paints a picture and sells it, for instance, the customer has the right to display the art, but the artist retains the right to have the picture printed on coffee mugs or T-shirts. The customer would need to purchase a license from the artist granting the customer the right to reproduce the work before they could make and distribute copies of it. However, the creator can sell their copyright to another person or legal entity. But if you do not sell your copyright, it lasts for your lifetime and some time beyond: The typical term of a copyright is the creator’s life plus 70 years.
It’s essential to understand the difference between a copyright and a trademark. Copyrights protect creative expressions, while trademark law protects symbols like logos, phrases, and specific words that identify particular goods and services. A trademark protects the Golden Arches from appearing on any restaurant other than McDonald’s or the swoosh symbol from appearing on non-Nike sneakers. Sometimes, things are protected by both copyright and trademark: Disney characters are an example of things that fall under both protections, as they are both forms of creative expression and symbols of a brand.
More About Copyright and Fair Use
- The Fair Use Confusion Game
- Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons
- Registering a Work
- Three Things You Need to Know About Filing a Copyright
- Steps to Copyright
- Do I Have to Register My Copyright Claim?
- U.S. Supreme Court Holds That Copyrights Must Be Registered Before Plaintiffs Can File Infringement Suits
- Trademark, Patent, or Copyright?
- Copyright Act of 1976
- Intellectual Property Clause
- Primary Sources on Copyright
- Copyright Ownership: Who Owns What?
- Understanding the Copyright License
- Copyright Terms and Definitions
- International Copyright Basics: What Is Copyright?
- Obtaining Copyright Permissions
Resources for Writers
- Author’s Alliance: Fair Use for Writers
- Avoiding Plagiarism: Copyright vs. Plagiarism
- USA Publishing and Copyright Agreement
- Legal Guide for Bloggers
- How to Avoid Image Copyright Infringement When Blogging
- About the ISBN Standard
- A Step-by-Step Guide to Dealing With Content Theft
Resources for Artists and Photographers
- The Business of Art: Fair Use and Copyright Law
- Designer Drama: Urban Outfitters Accused of Stealing Artist’s Designs
- Copyright FAQs
- Photo Copyright 101: Is it Legal to Use Photos From the Internet?
- Copyright Basics
- A Beginner’s Guide to Copyright Law for Artists
- Should an Artist Trademark Their Name?