As an entertainment lawyer, I represent artists, photographers, authors, screenwriters, scriptwriters, playwrights, designers, lyricists, songwriters and other creative professionals. One commonly-asked question I get all the time is “how do I copyright my work?”
The answer is easy—once you have written, or painted, or sculpted, or recorded, or otherwise permanently “fixed” your work in a “tangible means of expression” (e.g., paper, magnetic tape, digital files; and yes, typing on a computer and saving the file counts), the protections afforded by U.S. copyright law apply.
As the original author of your work, you initially own all copyrights. This is true even if your work is never published, or even if you never show it to another living soul. Your work is protected by U.S. copyright law simply by virtue of being permanently and tangibly created. (By comparison, just thinking of something and doing nothing else is not sufficient to obtain the protections of copyright law.)
Disclaimer: note that this post discusses general rules. If ever in doubt, please consult an attorney about your specific circumstances.
Copyright is many things, but it is not a verb.
Think of “copyright” as a noun, something (literally, specific rights related to making copies) that can be owned, licensed, bought, and sold. “Copyright” is not a verb. There is no action “to copyright”.
What do I mean? Simply put, there is nothing you must affirmatively do to obtain the protections of U.S. copyright law. What many people think of as “copyrighting a work” is actually “registering the work” with the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Registration, for which the Copyright Office charges a fee, is optional but provides some benefits. For example, in order to sue someone for copyright infringement, you first must register the work that has allegedly been infringed. But even without registering your work, it is protected by copyright law and, as the author of the work, the copyrights initially vest in you (i.e., you own them).
In fact, it is not even necessary to place a formal copyright notice (e.g., “© 2016 by Jane Doe”) on your work, although it certainly doesn’t hurt to let all the world know you created the work and own the copyrights in it.
What rights do I own in my work when I own the copyrights?
As the owner of the copyrights in your work, you alone have the right to do or authorize the following:
- Reproduce (literally, “make copies of”) and distribute your work
- Create derivative works, such as sequels, prequels, spin-offs, or film/TV adaptations
- Perform and/or display the work publicly
These copyrights let you “exploit” (e.g., make money off of) your work. You also can sell or transfer all or some of those specific copyrights to another person. Or you can license another person to use all or some of your copyrights for specific purposes at specific times.
Typically, you own these copyrights for the duration of your life (or, if you co-created the work, the life of the last surviving author) plus 70 years. The rights, just like other forms of property, pass to your estate when you die, unless you have otherwise disposed of the rights before while alive (e.g., by selling them, transferring them, or putting them in a trust).
If you’re curious, the law — specifically the United States Copyright Act of 1976, Title 17 of the United States Code, beginning at section 101 and continuing from there (17 U.S.C. §§ 101, et al) — can be read here.
The work is yours. If it is infringed, you have options.
The question this post addresses often comes up when a person or business has infringed someone else’s work. If the work is yours, you have the right to pursue legal action. I can help you register your work and address the copyright infringement.