Definition of Copyright

Copyright Symbol

A copyright provides writers (and other creators of art) protection from duplication of their original content by others without permission.

Copyright in Simple Terms

U.S. Code, Title 17 provides authors protection for any "original works of authorship." This means once you write something, barring other circumstances, the copyright to your work belongs solely to you. The time limit for a copyright is pretty extensive - life plus 70 years after the author's death. Copyrights cover a variety of written works of a literary, dramatic, artistic, photographic, architectural, sculpture, or musical nature. There are a number of rights that are granted with a copyright including the right to:

  • Reproduce or distribute copies via sale to the public, rental or leasing basis
  • Perform written works in a public forum
  • Publicly display written work
  • Create derivative works

Copyright Limits

While copyright does protect your work, there are limitations on the protection offered. One such limitation that surprises new writers is that you cannot copyright a title. Other limitations include:

  • Permission for others to use parts of copyrighted works for things like reviews, news, commentary, criticism, research and scholarship
  • Names, ideas and common facts cannot be copyrighted
  • Radio transmissions replayed by hotels, apartment complexes, or similar establishments will not be barred as long as residents and guests are not paying for the service
  • Performance or display of copyrighted work will be okay if it is done by teacher or students in the classroom via face to face activity
  • Libraries and archives can make one copy of copyrighted works and generally distribute it to the public or to researchers if the library or archive is private in nature
  • Public domain works, which includes works with an expired copyright, are available to be used by anyone

Work for Hire

Freelancers and ghostwriters are familiar with this term because it is often found in most freelancer contracts. Normally anything you write comes with automatic copyrights that you as the author own. However, if you are writing for the benefit of another, and agree that your writing is a "work for hire," the copyright in your work will be owned by the person or entity that employed you.

Copyrights and Registration

Contrary to popular opinion, once a work is written there is an automatic copyright that is vested in the author or creator. However, there are a number of advantages to registering for a copyright that aren't available for those who don't file.

Why Register?

If you have all the above rights as the creator of a work, you may wonder why you should have to register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office at all. The answer is plain and simple: it's a form of copyright protection. If someone does try to steal or use your work in any way without your permission, in order to take them to federal court, your copyright will have to be registered.

While your work doesn't have to be published or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office to be copyrighted, there are benefits to registering:

  • It sets up a public record of your copyright.
  • It allows you to file an infringement suit in court if someone tries to steal any portion of your work.
  • If you register within five years of publication, your copyright certificate provides evidence in court that your copyright claim is valid.
  • If you register with the U.S. Copyright Office within three months of publication (or before an infringement), you as the copyright holder are entitled to statutory damages plus lawyer's fees involved in taking the offender to court. If you are the copyright holder, but have not registered the copyright in this situation, the court only awards actual damages and profits.
  • Registering your copy also allows you to record your copyright with U.S. Customs, who then protects your work by making sure fraudulent copies are not imported.

Importance of Publication

Publication is not necessary for an author to have a copyright of his or her work. However, it can play an important role when it comes to protecting your copyright under special provisions for published works. In addition, a publication date will specifically set the time period in which your copyright arose, making it easier to prove infringement. Publication also acts as a notification of sorts to the public that the particular piece of work is copyrighted.

Where to Register Your Copyright

Register your copyright by mail or through the Electronic Copyright Office. Using this online registration system costs less, but be aware that some copyrights will require that you file via paper and mail method instead of electronically. The fees for filing for your copyright can change, so your best bet is to contact the copyright office at (877) 476-0778, or check online at, before you get ready to file.

Infringement and Remedy

Anyone who violates another individuals copyright will be deemed to have infringed on their work. You will only have three years from the time you discover the infringement to sue that person or entity in federal court. There are a number of things a court will do once it has determined that an infringement exists including:

  • Issuance of an injunction
  • Seizing and disposing of illegal duplicates
  • Award actual damages plus any profits made by the infringer
  • Award statutory damages which can range from $750-$30,000
  • Award court costs and attorney's fees

A Good Idea

Registration of your copyright is not necessary but a prudent idea, especially for writers that spend a lot of time on a lengthy project. The key to registration is being able to collect monetary compensation for another individual's infringement on your copyright. Give your work the highest amount of protection from duplication by others and register it with the U.S. copyright office.

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Definition of Copyright