Law Office of Tom James
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FAQs about copyrights

Q: What is copyright?

A: Copyright is a bundle of rights granted by law for original works of authorship of published or unpublished works that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. It comprises five exclusive rights:

  • the right to make copies of the work
  • the right to distribute copies of the work
  • the right to create derivative works based upon the work
  • the right to perform the work publicly
  • the right to display the work publicly.

Q: What kinds of works does copyright protect?

A: Original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, stories, books, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, methods of operation, or inventions, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.

Q: When does a copyright come into existence?

A: A work of original authorship receives copyright protection at the first moment it is fixed in a tangible form that is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

Q: Is copyright registration necessary?

A:No. Copyright protections can exist without registration. A lawsuit for infringement of a copyright cannot be filed, however, unless the copyright is registered.

Q: Why should I get a copyright registration for my work?

A: Registration is necessary to file a lawsuit for infringement, and is a prerequisite to the recovery of statutory damages and attorney fees if the suit is successful. If a work is registered within five years of publication, then the registration is prima facie evidence of copyright ownership in court proceedings. Registration also puts others on notice of your claim of copyright protection, and may help forestall publication of identical or substantially similar works. Finally, registration may help provide evidence of an earlier date of creation, in the event the author is accused of copying another person’s work.

Q: What is a “poor man’s copyright?”

A: This refers to the practice of mailing a copy of your own work. The idea is that the postmark on the envelope then establishes the last possible date of creation of the work. While it may be true that this may be a way of generating some kind of evidence about the date on which a work was created, it is not a substitute for registration. Registration will still be necessary in order to file a lawsuit for infringement, recover attorney fees, and so on.

Q: Is copyright registration in the U.S.effective in other countries?

A:Through treaties and international agreements, most countries, including the United States, recognize and honor each other’s citizens’ copyrights. Not all countries have copyright relations with the U.S., however.

Q: Can a website be copyrighted?

A: The original authorship appearing on a website may be protected by copyright. This includes writings, artwork, photographs, and other forms of authorship protected by copyright. 

Q: Can a domain name be copyrighted?

A: No.

Q: Can a recipe be copyrighted?

A:Lists of ingredients are not protected under copyright law. A recipe may enjoy copyright protection, however, if it is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a collection of recipes, as in a cookbook. It should be noted that materials submitted to the Copyright Office for registration are public records. Accordingly, if you wish to keep all or part of a recipe secret, you should not submit it for registration.

Q: Can the name of a band, or a trade name, be copyrighted?

A: No. Names are not protected by copyright law. It may be possible to register certain kinds of names as trademarks, though.

Q: How do I copyright a short phrase, or the title of a book, song, etc.?

A: You can't. Copyright does not protect names, titles, slogans, or short phrases. It may be possible to register certain kinds of short phrases as trademarks, though.

Q: Can a logo be copyrighted?

A:The textual expression in a logo, like any other name or short phrase,  generally cannot be copyrighted. However, copyright protection may be available for logo artwork that contains sufficient authorship. In some cases, an artistic logo may also be protected as a trademark. 

Q: Can an idea be copyrighted?

A: No. Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description or drawings, but copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work. 

Q: Does a work have to be published to be protected?

A: No. Publication is not necessary for copyright protection. 

Q: Can I copyright something I saw or heard?

A:No, but if you took a photograph or made a recording of something you observed, you may copyright the photograph or the recording. If you wrote down what you saw or heard, you may register your written description of your observations.

Q: Can I sue someone for copyright infringement if he takes a photograph of the same thing that I photographed?

A:No. Copyright law protects the photograph, not the subject of the photograph.

Q: Can architecture be copyrighted?

A:Yes. The design of a building embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings, may be copyrighted if they were created on or after December 1, 1990.

Q: Can foreign works be registered in the United States?

A: Any work that is protected by U.S. copyright law can be registered, regardless of where the work was created.

Q: Can a minor register a copyright?

A: Yes. The Copyright Office can issue registrations to minors, but state laws may regulate the business dealings involving copyrights owned by minors.

Q: Can I register a copyright using a pseudonym (pen name)?

A: Yes.

Q: Can I keep information on my copyright application secret?

A: No. Copyright applications are public records. Any information you provide will be accessible to the public.

Q: What is preregistration?

A: Preregistration is a new procedure in the Copyright Office for certain classes of works that the Register of Copyrights has determined have a history of pre-release infringement. Preregistration serves as a place-holder for limited purposes, mainly where a copyright owner needs to sue for infringement while a work is still being prepared for commercial release. Preregistration is not a substitute for registration, and its use is only appropriate in certain circumstances.

A work submitted for preregistration must meet three conditions:

  1. it must be unpublished;
  2. it must be in the process of being prepared for commercial distribution in either physical or digital format, e.g., film copies, CDs, computer programs to be sold online, and the applicant must have a reasonable expectation of this commercial distribution
  3. it must fall within the following classes of works determined by the Register of Copyrights to have had a history of infringement prior to authorized commercial distribution:
  • motion pictures
  • sound recordings
  • musical compositions
  • literary works being prepared for publication in book form
  • computer programs (which may include videogames)
  • advertising or marketing photographs

Q: Is preregistration a substitute for registration?

A: No. Preregistration is not a form of registration but is simply an indication of an intent to register a work once the work has been completed and/or published. When the work has been completed, it may be registered as an unpublished work, and when it has been published, it may be registered as a published work.

Preregistrationof a work offers certain advantages to a copyright owner but it  does not constitute prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright or of the facts stated in the application for preregistration or in the preregistration record. The fact that a work has been preregistered does not create any presumption that the Copyright Office will register the work upon submission of an application for registration.

A person who has preregistered a work must register the work within one month after the copyright owner becomes aware of infringement and no later than three months after first publication. If full registration is not made within the prescribed time period, a court must dismiss an action for copyright infringement that occurred before or within the first two months after first publication.

Q: How long does the registration process take?

A: The time the Copyright Office requires to process an application varies, but typically is between 3 and 8 months.

Q: What is the effective date of a copyright registration?

A: For works that are determined to be copyrightable and that meet all legal and procedural requirements for registration, the effective date of registration is the date the Copyright Office received the completed application, correct payment, and copy(ies) of the work being registered in acceptable form.

Q: How long does a copyright last?

A: The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and the date of first publication. In general, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. Different rules apply for works first published prior to 1978. 

Q: Are copyright registrations renewable?

A: Not if the work was created on or after January 1, 1978. For works published or registered prior to January 1, 1978, renewal registration is optional after 28 years.

Q: How much of someone else's work can be used without getting permission?

A: Under the fair use doctrine, it is permissible to use limited portions of a work including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports. There are no legal rules permitting the use of a specific number of words, a certain number of musical notes, or percentage of a work. Whether a particular use qualifies as fair use depends on all the circumstances.

Q: Can I claim copyright in someone else's work if I change it?

A: No. A changed version of a work is called a derivative work. Only the owner of copyright in a work has the right to prepare, or to authorize someone else to create, a derivative work from it.

Q: Can samples or quotes be used without permission?

A: Some kinds of quotations and sampling practices are considered “fair use” and do not require the author’s permission. Others may require permission. Obtaining permission is recommended if there is any doubt about it.

Q: Does the Copyright Office have a list of works that are in the public domain?

A. No.

Q: Is it legal to download works from peer-to-peer networks without the copyright owner's permission?

A: No. Uploading or downloading works protected by copyright without the authority of the copyright owner is an infringement of the copyright owner's exclusive rights of reproduction and/or distribution. To avoid the risk of liability, there are currently many "authorized" services on the Internet that allow consumers to purchase copyrighted works online, whether music, ebooks, or motion pictures.

Q: Are copyrights transferable?

A: Yes.

Q: Can I backup (make archival copies of) my computer software?

A: Yes, this is permitted if:

  • the new copy is being made for archival (i.e., backup) purposes only;
  • you are the legal owner of the copy; and
  • any copy made for archival purposes is either destroyed, or transferred with the original copy, once the original copy is sold, given away, or otherwise transferred.

The provisions of the Copyright Act that permit the making of backup copies of computer software do not authorize you to make backup copies of other material.

Q: What is mandatory deposit?

A: The owner of the copyright or of the exclusive right of distribution must  deposit in the U.S. Copyright Office for the use of the Library of Congress two complete copies of the best edition of the work within 3 months after it is published. Copies of all works under copyright protection that have been published or distributed in the United States must be deposited with the Copyright Office within 3 months of the date of first publication.

Q: Who is considered the author of a work, for copyright purposes?

A: Under the copyright law, the creator of the original expression in a work is its author. The author is also the owner of copyright unless there is a written agreement by which the author assigns the copyright to another person or entity, such as a publisher. In cases of works made for hire, the employer or commissioning party is considered to be the author.

Q: Is a copyright notice necessary?

A: A copyright notice is an identifier placed on copies of the work to inform the world of copyright ownership. It consists of the symbol, ©, or the word “copyright,” the name of the copyright owner, and the year of first publication, e.g., ©2013 John Doe. Use of a copyright notice is no longer required as a condition of copyright protection. Different requirements may apply for works published before March 1, 1989.

Q: What is copyright infringement?

A: Copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner. 

Q: What is the public domain?

A: A work of authorship is said to be in the “public domain” if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner. 

Q: What is a work made for hire, and who is considered the author?

A: Although the general rule is that the person who creates the work is its author, a work made for hire is an exception to that rule. A work made for hire is a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or a work specially ordered or commissioned in certain specified circumstances. When a work qualifies as a work made for hire, the employer, or commissioning party, is considered to be the author. 

Q: What is a Library of Congress number?

A: The Library of Congress Control Number is assigned by the Library at its discretion to assist librarians in acquiring and cataloging works.

Q: What is an ISBN number?

A: The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is administered by the R.R. Bowker Company. It is a numerical identifier intended to assist the international community in identifying and ordering publications. 

Q: Can Internet Service Providers and website hosting services be held liable for any infringing content that is published by their customers?

A: Yes, under certain circumstances. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) provides some protection against liability for providers who carefully comply with the requirements set out in the Act.

Q: What can I do if somebody infringes my copyright?

A: You may file a civil lawsuit in federal district court for injunctive relief and compensatory damages. Under some circumstances, you may be able to recover attorney fees. There are also substantial criminal penalties for willful copyright infringement for profit. Prior to commencing a lawsuit, you may first want to consider less costly alternatives to litigation, such as issuing a cease-and-desist letter, and/or making a demand for a monetary settlement.