What are the basics of copyrights?

What is a copyright? How do copyrights differ from trademarks or patents? Here are some basics. 

What is a copyright?

A copyright is a form of intellectual property protection for works that contain original, individual expression, such as books, plays, and paintings. Copyrights are not available for ideas, facts, or useful inventions.

What can be copyrighted?

As a general rule, works that involve an author’s original exploration of some creative expression which he/she has not copied from someone else can be copyrighted.

One large category is literary works, including fictional works, non-fictional expression, directories and databases if sufficiently original, compilations of other works, creative labels, and individual characters such as James Bond or Harry Potter. Another category is performance works, including musical compositions, sound recordings of those compositions, dramatic works such as plays and pantomimes, choreography, and audiovisual works such as movies. Finally, visual works, such as paintings, photographs, sculpture, and architecture may be copyrighted.

What cannot be copyrighted?

Copyright protection is only available for the portion of a work that includes the author’s personal input, not the facts or common elements available to all. For example, a play about a prince who suspects his uncle of murdering his father is an idea and cannot be copyrighted. But the words Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet are an individual exploration of the underlying idea and are copyrightable expression.

Similar logic bars processes, concepts, research, and truths of science from being copyrighted as they reflect concepts that are more abstract than individual expression, and exist as real-world methods or common knowledge.

When does a copyright begin and end?

A copyright begins when the work is first fixed in a tangible medium of expression. With media such as books and plays, your work is copyrighted from the moment you finish writing it. With other media such as computer software, the copyright begins when you save the work in a tangible medium such as a CD.

For works created after January 1, 1978, a copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the author or, for joint works, 70 years after the death of the last surviving author. For anonymous or pseudonymous works, works made for hire, and corporate-authored works, the copyright lasts for 95 years after first publication or 120 years after creation, whichever expires first.

How do copyrights differ from trademarks or patents?

A trademark protects not works of individual expression, but rather words and logos which are used to identify the source of products or services. Short words or phrases cannot be copyrighted, but can be used as trademarks if they denote a particular manufacturer. Unlike a copyright, a trademark can last forever if the owner properly defends it.

A patented invention cannot be an individual expression like a book, but is rather a new and useful device. Unlike copyrights, an invention will receive no protection until it has been patented. The bar for a patent is also much higher than for a copyright.

Learn more about our approach to trademark and copyright law.