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Copyright: Definition and Basic Overview

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Copyrights are the perfect choice when you want to protect your creative works and intellectual property rights. While you can copyright your original creations without registration, you can glean certain advantages if you make things official with the federal government.

In the page below, we took a deep dive into copyright laws and how you can use one in your business:

What Is a Copyright?

Copyrights are legal protections for exclusive rights of creative works. Creative works include literary, artistic, educational, and musical intellectual property. The traditional copyright symbol is ©.

Copyright Basics with Examples

While registration is not required to own a copyright, it is required before you can file a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Copyright registration also creates a public record of your claim. This process is a requirement for infringement lawsuits should one arise.

The legal benefits of registering your copyright far outweigh the effort. Creators should consider doing so when creating copyrightable work. You will likely thank yourself in the future.

What Works Can I Copyright?

The term “copyrightable work” refers to original forms of expression. You can copyright works in the following formats and mediums:

  • Musical compositions
  • Pantomimes
  • Choreographic works
  • Paintings, graphic design, and sculptures
  • Audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Literary works
  • Architectural designs

Here’s a list of things that aren’t copyrighted:

  • Procedures, methods, systems, and processes
  • Logos, slogans, and other forms of trade dress
  • Unwritten speeches or performances
  • Government-funded projects

As you can see, copyright legislation is broad. However, it does not cover every instance of creativity.

If you have questions or concerns about what you can copyright, always speak with a copyright lawyer for greater clarity. They can also help you handle the application and search process. Many business owners have reassurance knowing they’ll avoid expensive legal mistakes with this option.

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

Some believe that copyright registration is valid for 70 years after creator’s death. This fact is only true for works created by a single owner.

Most copyrights have a duration determined by the type of entity that owns the copyright, the number of authors, and other factors. Joint ownership lasts for 70 years after last surviving author’s death.

What Rights Does a Copyright Holder Have?

Copyright holders have various rights, including the ability to reproduce, sell, and publicly display their work. According to copyright law, these rights are exclusive. Exclusivity means that the copyright holder is the only entity permitted to take certain actions.

Copyright holders have the following rights:

  • Create derivative works based on the source material
  • Distribution
  • Lease or lend copies
  • Make copies of the work
  • Perform original copyrighted work
  • Publicly display the copyrighted work
  • Sell or transfer ownership

Copyright infringement occurs when someone uses the work without permission or a legal defense such as fair use. If someone infringes upon your rights, consider exercising your options for remedy.

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What Are Your Legal Rights If Someone Infringes Upon Them?

Depending on the circumstances, you can settle the dispute in or out of court if for infringement cases. You can’t legally enforce your copyright ownership rights without registration. Additionally, the infringer won’t face prosecution.

However, there’s a process if someone infringes on your copyright and you haven’t registered it yet. Start by contacting the infringer and request that they stop. Most business owners end up hiring a copyright lawyer to send a cease and desist letter.

However, if you have a copyright registration, your cease and desist will always be more persuasive when the person knows you have the right to sue if they ignore you.

How Much Does It Cost to Get a Copyright?

While there’s an expedited process, copyright registration costs are $45-$65 for non-expedited copyright filings. In the grand scheme of things in the business world, this filing fee is relatively nominal. Expedited registration costs can exceed $800, not including preparation costs.

Beyond that, you won’t be able to take any formal or legally binding actions until you register your work with the copyright office.

Examples of Copyright Basics

Understanding how copyrights work is more straightforward with examples. Below, we’ve created a few common examples to help you understand copyright basics:

Copyright Example 1. Music and Merchandise

Here’s a copyright example involving a local recording artist:

  • Omar is an Americana and folk artist in Montana
  • He writes, records, and performs music as part of his work
  • He also operates a website that helps him sell music and merchandise
  • Omar’s copyright lawyers advise him to register and affix a copyright symbol
  • Omar’s web designer places a copyright symbol in the IP footer of his site
  • Omar’s graphic designer includes the copyright on his printed materials and graphic design works
  • Omar feels safe and secure that his IP remains protected over the course of his career as a local recording artist

Copyright Example 2. Orchestral Scores

Here’s a copyright example involving a composer:

  • Luis is a conductor for a regional philharmonic orchestra
  • He is creating an original score for the orchestra to perform in a few years
  • Upon completion, Luis speaks with his copyright lawyers
  • Luis decides to register a copyright after speaking with them
  • Luis retains his Original Work of Authorship (OWA) over the score
  • The score is a massive hit with audiences
  • A metropolitan orchestra becomes impressed with his compositions
  • Luis accepts a job offer and signs a contract with them
  • Luis’ OWA permits him to perform his score with the new orchestra

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Copyright Example 3. Website Footers

Here’s an example of a copyright for a website:

  • Milo owns a company that manufactures disinfecting wipes
  • His company, Hawthorn Wipes, operates a website that sells direct-to-consumer
  • Milo also invests in search engine optimization and content
  • He is right to feel concerned about IP theft
  • Milo does a quick online search and thinks he should add a copyright symbol to the footer
  • Milo is an agile business owner and makes website changes through his CMS
  • Hawthorn Wipes’ web content is now protected from fraud or theft

This article also covers copyright basics.

What Is Copyright Registration?

Copyright registrations are verifiable records of a work’s creation date, owner, and content. The United States Copyright Office assigns a copyright registration number to a work after submitting an application and paying an application fee. In legal cases of plagiarism or infringement, this measure safeguards the copyright owner.

What Is a Copyright Search?

Copyright searches are necessary for using or registering copyright. Anyone can search the Library of Congress to perform one. From there, people can locate all recorded claimants for the specific query, including renewals and assignments.

Copyright vs. Trademarks

The primary distinction between copyrights vs. trademarks is that copyrighting generally protects creative works. On the other hand, trademarks preserve a brand’s trade dress.

However, they’re similar in that you don’t have to register them to use them but can if you wish to invoke certain legal protections and rights. Ownership also belongs to the original creator in both cases.

Get Help with Copyright Laws

Are you thinking about copyrighting your creative works of expression? It’s a wise idea since intellectual property is vital to your success. Instead of leaving your works unprotected, speak with copyright lawyers for legal help.

Post a project in ContractsCounsel’s marketplace to get free bids from intellectual property lawyers in our network. All lawyers are vetted by our team and peer reviewed by our customers for you to explore before hiring.


ContractsCounsel is not a law firm, and this post should not be considered and does not contain legal advice. To ensure the information and advice in this post are correct, sufficient, and appropriate for your situation, please consult a licensed attorney. Also, using or accessing ContractsCounsel's site does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and ContractsCounsel.


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Is using a mug or merchandise in a flyer for an event with another company’s logo copyright infringement.

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Do you have a license to use the intellectual property? Consult with an attorney.

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