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What is a copyright?

Copyright protects “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, pictorial, architectural, and audiovisual works. Copyright law in the U.S. arises under the Copyright Act of 1976, a federal statute. To be eligible for copyright protection, a work must be “original” (i.e., minimally creative) and “fixed” in a tangible medium of expression. Both published and unpublished works are protected.

The owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to do the following:

  • To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords.
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work.
  • To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works.
  • To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Anyone who violates any of these exclusive rights is liable for copyright infringement, unless a limitation applies—for example, the “fair use” defense or a compulsory license.

What types of works are protected by copyright?

Under the Copyright Act, “works of authorship” include the following:

  • Literary works (includes computer software)
  • Musical works
  • Dramatic works
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

Do I need to register my copyright?

Registration is voluntary, and copyright exists from the moment a work is created. If you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work, however, registration is a necessary antecedent to litigation.

Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office creates a public record of facts about a copyrighted work, including authorship and ownership information. Registering your work creates a record of copyright ownership that allows the public to identify and locate copyright owners. Registration also gives you additional rights in the event that your work is infringed. If you believe that someone has infringed your copyright, you must register your copyright before you can bring a lawsuit.

Registration brings other benefits as well. If you register a work before or within five years of its first publication, you receive the presumption that the work is copyrightable and that the facts stated in the registration certificate are true. Thus, the burden of proving your copyright is invalid will fall on the defendant. Additionally, if you register your copyright prior to infringement or within 90 days of the first publication of the work, statutory damages (amounts established by law) and attorneys’ fees are available in the event of an infringement suit. If you do not complete early registration, however, your remedy is limited to the actual damages you suffered as a result of the infringement (and any of the infringer’s additional profits that are attributable to the infringement) and/or injunctive relief.

If you are in need of a copyright infringement attorney, email us at or call us at the office nearest you.