Intro To Copyright Law

Jim Phillips

I don't think there is any area of the Internet so misunderstood as copyright law. Terms like “work of authorship,” “fair use” and “derivative works” are confusing, and many people do not know how to copyright their own work.

This article will give you a quick overview of current copyright law as it applies to small business owners and freelancers on the Internet. I am not a lawyer and this article does not constitute legal advice, so you have questions about a specific situation, contact an attorney.

What Is A Copyright?
A copyright is protection under the Federal Copyright Act of 1976 which states that the original author of a creative work has the exclusive right to control who makes copies of the work and who modifies the work to create a new “derivative” work.

You can sell or license the right to copy your work. If you create the work as part of your job responsibilities – if you write software code, for example – your employer is the author of the work. If anyone else copies, rents or distributes your copyrighted work, they must have your permission or pay you a fee.

What Is “Fair Use?”
The “fair use” doctrine allows you to use someone else’s work in a limited way without permission. Two common examples of fair use are the use of movie clips in film reviews and the use of the slides you saw in your Art History class by your professor for educational purposes.

Fair use is intended to facilitate commentary, reporting, parody, and education. Fair use does not harm the commercial value of the work.

How Do I Register A Copyright?
Your creative work is protected when it is “fixed” in a permanent (“tangible“) form. This can mean words written on paper, music recorded on a CD, or a computer graphic saved to disk.

You do not need to put a copyright notice on your work or register your copyright to protect your work. However, if you plan to sue for copyright infringement, you will need to register your copyright with the Copyright Office. This registration preserves your right to sue for copyright infringement, and entitles you to statutory (rather than actual) damages if your copyright is infringed. The current fee to register your copyright is $30.00.

Who Owns the Copyright To My Work?
You, as the author, own the copyright to all of your original work unless the work was produced as part of your employment. If you are an employer and your employee creates the work within the scope of his or her job duties, you own the copyright as the employer.

What Cannot Be Copyrighted?
Anything that does not include original work cannot be copyrighted. Examples of things that cannot be copyrighted include altering typefaces or colors on a logo, a list of ingredients in a recipe, or an idea.

Remember, you can copyright the expression of an idea, but not the idea itself. A mathematical equation cannot be copyrighted. An article explaining a mathematical equation is protected under copyright law.

In addition, copyright law does not protect works in the public domain, like the works of Shakespeare, government publications, and material whose copyright has expired.

Can I Copyright My Website?
You can copyright the content of your website, including articles, artwork, photographs, and audio files. You can also copyright your weekly or monthly newsletter using a group registration for a serial publication, also available through the US Copyright Office.

How Do I Get Permission To Use Copyrighted Material?
Contact the author of the copyrighted work directly and ask for his or her permission, which should be granted in writing. Remember, do not use other people's work on your website without permission. Even if you are not charging for a copy of someone else's work, you do not have the right to copy or distribute any material protected by copyright law. If you do, you may find yourself being sued for copyright infringement.

For further information, check out the Library of Congress Copyright Office and The Copyright Website

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