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Some quick FAQs on Copyrights

What is copyright?
Copyright is a form of protection for artistic creations granted automatically by international treaty (the Bern Convention) and, in the US, by Congress pursuant to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works. Registration is not required to get a copyright, but is necessary to enforce a copyright in Court.

What does copyright protect?
Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. See Copyright Office Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section "What Works Are Protected."

How is a copyright different from a patent or a trademark?
The difference is simple, Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions, and a trademark protects brand names. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be. So the idea of an artificial world accessed through virtual reality in Avatar is not protectable, but the wold of “Pandora” artistically created for and shown in Avatar, and the movie Avatar itself are. A copyright is easier to obtain than a trademark and costs less but also last a long, long time. A copyright has narrower coverage than a patent, but lasts much longer than a patent.

When is my work protected?
upon creation in tangible form. Your work is automatically under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

Do I have to register with the Copyright Office to be fully protected?
YES, you are not fully protected until you register. Although copyright protection begins automatically the moment the work is created, you cannot successfully sue anyone to enforce an unregistered copyright. Registration is a jurisdictional requirement for standing to bring an infringement action in US District Court. Since US District Courts have exclusive original (trial) jurisdiction because copyrights are granted under Federal, not State, law, you must apply for Federal registration pursuant to Federal law in order to invoke the jurisdiction of the trial court in a copyright infringement suit.. See Copyright Office Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Copyright Registration.” A copyright lawyer can advise you on enforcement.

Why should I register my work now if copyright protection is automatic? Can't I just wait until I need to sue someone for copyright infringement?
Registration is recommended NOW for a number of reasons. Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within 5 years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Copyright Registration” and Circular 38b, Highlights of Copyright Amendments Contained in the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), on non-U.S. works.

I’ve heard about a “poor man’s copyright.” What is it?
Worthless. The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a “poor man’s copyright.” There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration. Online copyright registration is fast and easy and the Government fee is just $45, so even a “poor man” has no sound reason to do anything less.

Can any attorney handle copyright matters?
Generally, NO.
Just as you would hire a brain surgeon to do complex brain surgery or heart surgeon to do a heart transplant, you should hire a copyright attorney for all but the simplest of copyright matters. Most “intellectual property” attorneys are copyright specialists and many have the added advantage of also handling patent and trademark matters so they can give you advice on those protection options. If litigation is needed, you will probably need a trial attorney specializing in copyright litigation.