What IS Copyright, Anyway?

Authors talk a lot about “copyright,” but many don’t actually understand what the word entails.

A lot of us also don’t ask questions, largely from a desire “not to look stupid” — I know I’m guilty of that on occasion, and I suspect a lot of other people are too.

Since school is starting (for some, has already started) it seemed the right time of year to open a series on copyright for authors. We’ll talk about what it means, what rights it includes, and how to make sure your contract terms protect them.

Today? Square 1: What IS Copyright, Anyway?

Copyright is a form of Intellectual Property, which means intangible property, generally in the form of ideas, inventions or creative works.

In the United States, much of the intellectual property law is federal law, meaning law enacted by the United States government (that’s Congress, for the civics nuts among you). State laws may supplement, but cannot overrule federal laws.

Intellectual property law is also mostly statutory, which means it exists in codes enacted by legislatures rather than lawsuits decided by judges. Judges do interpret these codes, and sometimes expand or interpret them in ways that create “new law,” but (at least in theory) these judge-made precedents cannot conflict with (and can be overruled by) statutes.

Brain full yet? Not quite? OK, we’re moving on.

Internationally, copyright law is governed by treaties, which are agreements between nations or national governments. 

But none of that explains what copyright IS.

Let’s look closer.

Copyright is a form of legal protection for published and unpublished creative works “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”

Copyright protection begins automatically at the time the work is created.

A valid copyright has five basic elements:

  1. Copyrightable Subject Matter
  2. Meets “Threshold for Protection”
  3. Compliance with Legal Formalities (which is not required for validity, but required in order for the owner to receive certain types of damages)
  4. Authorship or Ownership of the copyrighted material
  5. Statutory Duration

Let’s start with the easy one: Statutory Duration.

In the United States, a copyright lasts for one of two statutory terms:

For individuals: life of the author plus 70 years
For entity authors (meaning corporations, limited liability companies, etc): the shorter of 120 years from the date of creation or 95 years from the date of initial publication.

What does this mean for authors? Your copyrights will outlive you, unless you deliberately put your works into the public domain.

Since that’s the case, it’s important to understand exactly what your copyright covers (and what it doesn’t). But since we’re already three-steps deep in legalese today, we’ll take the next few steps in next week’s post.

Have questions about copyright? Ask them in the comments or tweet me using the #PubLaw hashtag – I love to answer reader questions!

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