Copyright Guide

Many business owners have become astute about the critical need to protect their intellectual property with patents and trademark registrations. However, copyrights tend to get overlooked.

Copyrights are a fundamental aspect of intellectual property protection. Relatively speaking, registrations are easy and inexpensive to obtain, yet they provide strong protections. Working with an intellectual property attorney may be the best way to ensure that your company is taking full advantage of the protections that are afforded by copyrights.

What Is a Copyright?

Basically, a copyright protects an original work by an author. A person who holds a copyright has the sole authority to distribute, display, modify, copy or perform the work. Most people know that a book can be copyrighted, but so can articles in online formats and in magazines. The same is true for photographs, paintings, sculptures, plays, movies, music videos, ballets, songs, architectural drawings, computer software source code and many other materials.

Several of the items that are created and used within the course of business may be protected by copyright. This can include flyers, promotional materials, blogs, product packaging, content on the company website, jingles used in advertising and more.

The owner of the copyright is the only individual or entity that has the right to use, modify and distribute the protected materials. Anyone else who wishes to use the material in whole or in part must seek and obtain permission to do so from the copyright holder. If they fail to do this, then they may be prosecuted for copyright infringement.

What is Protected By a Copyright

A copyright protects “original works of authorship”. Copyrightable works fall into the following categories:

  • Poetry
  • Novels
  • Movies
  • Songs
  • Computer Software
  • Architecture
  • Graphic design works
  • Sculptural works
  • Choreographical works

What is Not PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT?

Not everything is protected by copyright law. To be protected by copyright, a work must contain at least a minimum amount of authorship in the form of original expression. The following are categories of things generally not protected by a copyright:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices.
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; mere listings of ingredients or contents.
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible form of expression, such as an improvised speech or performance that is not written down or otherwise recorded.
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is commonly available and contains no originality.
  • Works by the US government.

How Do You Get a Copyright?

As soon as a work is recorded in some tangible form, it enjoys immediate copyright protection in the U.S. The moment your website is ready to be published or your marketing materials are ready for distribution, they are protected.

Registration is not required, but it is recommended. Registration provides enhanced protection. It’s possible for authors to apply for copyright protection through the website of the U.S. Copyright Office. Fees of between $35 and $55 are due at the time of application. The office will request that a copy of the work to be registered be submitted for review and for them to keep on file.

Registrations generally are issued within a few weeks or months. On some occasions, the office will have additional questions about the work or about whether or not the work is suitable for copyright registration. An intellectual property attorney can handle this process for you.


Obtaining a copyright for your work in the United States involves several steps, but it’s not overly complicated. Here’s a breakdown of the process:

1. Ensure Your Work is Eligible for Copyright:

Copyright protection extends to original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This includes creative content like books, music, paintings, movies, software, and much more. However, ideas, facts, and processes are not protected by copyright.

2. Create a Notice of Copyright:

While not mandatory for copyright protection in the US, affixing a copyright notice to your work is recommended. The notice should include the copyright symbol ©, the year of publication, and the copyright owner’s name.

3. Register Your Copyright (Optional):

Copyright registration is not mandatory for protection in the US, but it offers several advantages. It provides a public record of your copyright claim, makes it easier to sue for infringement, and is a prerequisite for certain legal remedies like statutory damages and attorney’s fees.

Here’s how to register your copyright:

  1. Visit the U.S. Copyright Office website: https://www.copyright.gov/
  2. Select the appropriate application form: There are different forms for different types of works.
  3. Complete the application form: Make sure to provide accurate and complete information.
  4. Pay the filing fee: The fee varies depending on the type of work and how you file (online or paper).
  5. Deposit copies of your work: The number of copies required varies depending on the type of work.

4. Maintain Records and Proof of Creation:

Keep copies of your work, drafts, and any other materials that document the creation process. This can be helpful evidence if you ever need to defend your copyright claim.

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

If your work is new and was published on or after January 1, 1978, then the work is protected by U.S. copyright law for the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. If the work was not authored by an individual, but by a corporation or other entity, then it is entitled to 120 years of protection from the date of creation or 95 years of protection from the date of publication. In this case, the earlier date would prevail.

Works that are older than these time limits are said to be in the “public domain.” As an example, Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876. This means that it is subject to earlier U.S. copyright law. Anything published prior to January 1, 1923 is officially in the public domain. This means that if you want to record Tom Sawyer as an audiobook or adapt it as a play, you are free to do so.

Are There International Copyrights?

International copyrights do not exist at this time. It may be useful to know that the Universal Copyright Convention and the Berne Convention do help to honor copyrighted works on an international level, and that the U.S. is a member of both conventions.

Copyright Violation Penalties

Depending on the nature of the offense, penalties for copyright infringement can vary in severity.

  • Not including attorney and court fees, violators can be fined of up to $150,000 in the U.S. and $1 million in Canada.
  • Any items that violate the copyright can be impounded.
  • The violator can receive jail time.

To avoid the consequences of copyright infringement, it’s important to know how copyright laws work. This will help you understand how to protect your own rights and avoid infringing on those of others.

If you have more questions about copyrights or about how to obtain a copyright registration on one of your original works, then contact Jeff Williams, an experienced intellectual property attorney.

Author: Jeff Williams

Jeff Williams is an experienced mechanical engineer and lawyer that consults closely with clients in a strait forward and clear manner.  He brings a particular set of strengths and unique perspectives to the firm.    
 Jeff received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Arizona State University in 2005.  He was an engineer for a number of years at a number of large corporations before pursuing his law degree.  He graduated from Texas A&M University School of Law (formerly Texas Wesleyan University School of Law) with a J.D. in 2010.  By combining his education and prior work experience into the field of intellectual property law, Jeff has developed key skills to fully assist clients.