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What you need to know about Copyrights

Updated on February 19, 2016

The Copyright Revision Act of 1976 governs copyright law in the United States of America. Under this law, any original works are protected automatically from inception when put into palpable form. That means the work must be written down some way, either in a book or manual or an article or a drawing or even in a software program. The work must be in a tangible form. Ideas and thoughts in your head cannot be copyrighted. Here is a bit of trivia for you: The first copyright in America was awarded on May 31, 1790 to a man named John Barry, a Philadelphia teacher, for a spelling book.

A copyright is a form of intellectual property protection that grants the owner of the work the right to ascertain how the work can be used in the business world. So, what exactly can be copyrighted? Copyright law protects “original works of authorship” that are fixed in tangible form. The primary categories are listed below:

Literary Works - Anything written down is a “literary work”. Keep in mind however, the work must have a high degree of distinctiveness, which means it cannot closely resemble somebody else’s work. That would be called infringement.

Musical Compositions - This would include the actual musical notes as well as the lyrics, provided it has been recorded or written down in a set form. Examples would be a piece of paper, a CD or a MP3 or a video. With musical compositions, there is an another little side called derivative works. Derivative works are new arrangements of something that is already copyrighted. Let’s say you came up with a unique version to a song by Brad Paisley. You would be able to copyright your version. However, if you wish to use that version commercially, you would need to get permission from Brad because you have infringed on his copyright of the original song. Many artists will give permission for a fee or royalties.

Computer Software - Congress passed the Computer Software Copyright Act in 1980 which enabled all forms of software to be protected.

Dramatic Works - A dramatic work is a theatrical performance. Plays, TV, movies are all included here.

Pantomimes and Choreographic Works - A pantomime is a performance that uses gestures and facial expressions to communicate and choreography is the arrangement of dance steps.

Pictorial, Graphic and Sculptural Works - This is a very large category which includes photographs, prints, art reproductions, charts, sculptures, toys, posters, maps, jewelry, globes, fabrics, cartoons, games, diagrams and technical drawings.

There are a few exclusions from copyright law. I’m afraid that killer chili recipe you have is not copyrightable. Lists of ingredients, facts and titles are on the list, as well as ideas.

Copyright infringement happens when one ‘work’ emanates from another or is a copy of that work.

However, there is such a thing called fair use. Fair use enables limited use of copyrighted material for things like teaching, news reporting, informational article writing with original author disclosure, parody or criticism.

Movie critics showing clips of movies is a good example of fair use. You may also copy songs and movies for personal use only. The internet is still a fuzzy area when it comes to copyrights.

Technically, everything on the web is copyrighted because the information is stored in tangible form on servers somewhere. Where it gets fuzzy is when people post information on the internet but do not leave contact information for people to request the usage of the material. This creates the argument that it was posted for public use. The debate rages on.

Last but not least, how the heck do you obtain a copyright officially? Well my friend, as mentioned earlier, copyright law protects any work of authorship the second it assumes a tangible form but there is more you can do to protect your works.

First off, simply write down the work is copyrighted by using the little symbol of a ‘C’ in a circle, the date and your name. By using this particular sign, you eliminate the argument that the infringer didn’t know the work was copyrighted. Secondly, you can register your work with the United States Copyright Office in Washington D.C.

The good news is copyrights last a long time. Any work created after January 1, 1978 is protected for the life of the author, plus 70 years. When it comes to works made for hire, the duration lasts 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

So get out there and start creating!

* Information and research for this article came from the text book… Entrepreneurship, Successfully Launching New Ventures, Second Edition 2008, Bruce R. Barringer, R. Duane Irland, Pearson, Prentice Hall Publishing.*

© 2011 Jamie Page


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    • MotherThumper profile image

      Jamie Page 5 years ago from Dahlonega, Ga


    • Brinafr3sh profile image

      Brinafr3sh 5 years ago from West Coast, United States

      Hi, this is awesome information. I've been looking for copyright information. Voted up, useful, and awesome, thanks.

    • MotherThumper profile image

      Jamie Page 6 years ago from Dahlonega, Ga


    • BusinessTime profile image

      Sarah Kolb-Williams 6 years ago from Twin Cities

      Not sure if this is still relevant, but the Copyright Office is still on a bit of a delay -- current filing times are running at 3 months for electronically filed applications, 10 months for paper forms. Check it out here:


    • MotherThumper profile image

      Jamie Page 6 years ago from Dahlonega, Ga

      Thanks. I seem to remember some of mine taking a month or two and they were just drawings. Might take them longer to research your screenplay. Remember the speed of government is woefully slow. Hehe..

    • Lets Learn profile image

      Lets Learn 6 years ago

      Good information. I have been waiting for the past 6 weeks for the copyright certificate for my screenplay. How long would they take to send it, any idea?