Legal Guide: Copyright 101

The AWB Firm Legal Guides

Copyright 101

This legal guide covers the most basic information you need to know about copyrights for your business: what’s a copyright, who owns it, and how do I use it to keep people from copying me?

What is a copyright?

U.S. copyright law protects “original works of authorship,” including photos, music, books, movies, artwork, computer software, and other creative or intellectual works. A copyright is the bundle of rights that protects these works.

How is a copyright different from a trademark?

We like to think of copyrights protecting creative works of art, while trademarks protect logos and slogans that identify companies or brands. There will be some overlap – for example, Mickey Mouse is a copyrighted cartoon character, and it’s also a trademark that identifies the Disney brand. In general, short phrases, slogans, and titles are not copyrightable, but may be used as trademarks.

Who owns a copyright?

The first owner of a copyright is the person who creates the work, called an “author” in U.S. copyright law. A company or individual can be the original “author” of a work someone else creates, but only if certain rules are followed so that the work qualifies as a “work made for hire” (more information on this to come in a separate legal guide). Two or more people can be co-authors of a single work, and share the copyrights in the work.

A copyright owner is free to transfer some or all of the different rights to another person or company, but transfers must be in writing to be valid, no exceptions!

What rights does a copyright give the owner?

If you own the copyright in a work, you have the exclusive right to use it, by making copies, displaying it, selling copies, making other works that are based on the original work (called “derivative works”), or performing it publicly. You also have the exclusive right to let other people do some or all of these things, by granting a “license.” Copyright law can’t protect your idea, it can only protect the exact way you have expressed your idea.

How do I copyright my work?

You’re in luck! Under current U.S. copyright law, your work is automatically protected by copyright from the moment it is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” That’s right, you don’t have to do anything more than create something to benefit from copyright protection. But it’s not enough to create a great song in your head – for copyright to protect it, you have to actually write it down or record it (digital counts).

How long does a copyright last?

If the author is an individual, a work is protected by copyright for the life of the author plus 70 years. For “works made for hire” and certain other works, the period is 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

Do I have to use the © symbol?

No, under current U.S. copyright law, use of the © symbol is optional. But, using it is a handy way to give others notice that you take copyright law seriously and don’t allow use of your work without permission. We recommend authors use the following simple copyright notice: “© [year of first publication] [Author’s name] All rights reserved”. This notice will prevent a claim of “innocent infringement” later.

Why should I register my work with the U.S. Copyright Office?

Copyright registration is not required for your work to be protected, but we HIGHLY recommend it, since it gives you serious benefits:

  • registration makes your content more valuable for licensing to others who want to use it;
  • before you can sue someone for using a work you own without your permission (“copyright infringement”) in the U.S., you must register the copyright.
  • if a copyright is registered within five years of first publication, a court will presume the information about the author and work in the registration certificate is correct.
  • in an infringement lawsuit, the damages you can receive may be much higher if the copyright was registered before, or very shortly after, the infringement began. A court may also award your attorney’s fees in an infringement suit only if the work was registered in this time period. Copyright infringement lawsuits can only be filed in federal district courts, and attorney’s fees can easily exceed $100,000 for a single case, so these remedies are very important.
  • those who want to ask for permission to use your work can search for you in the Copyright Office database (this is more helpful for works like a song or book with a single, easily searchable title, than works like photographs, which are virtually impossible to search for in the current database)

How do I register my work with the U.S. Copyright Office?

You can register most works on the U.S. Copyright Office website, via The filing fee is just $45 for a single work by one author and less than $100 for most other works.

Help! I don't understand how to fill out the copyright registration application.

You’re not alone: the copyright registration form is full of legalese and you can very easily make mistakes. Those mistakes could cost you later, requiring you to file more forms to correct the registration, or giving an infringer a defense if you have to send a cease and desist letter or file a lawsuit.

We work one-on-one every day with online and creative entrepreneurs on copyright issues.  We can make sure you are in compliance with all copyright laws and regulations, and apply for a U.S. copyright registration, for one predictable flat fee.

Contact us about how you can unlock the money-making potential in your content by fully protecting your copyrights.