Legalese — Copyright

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copyrightMost everyone is familiar with this symbol: © .  It means that whatever you have written there is under “copyright”.  But what exactly is copyright?

According to the United States Copyright Office, it protects the ownership of creative material and works of authorship, “including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.”  If you own the copyright to something, you have the exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce the work.
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work – that means something a sequel or with the same characters, or using the same research, for example.
  • Sell, lease, rent, or give away copies of the work.
  • Perform it publicly, in the case of a song or a play or choreography or the like.
  • Display it publicly.
  • Perform it via “digital audio transmission.”

If you don’t own the copyright, you can’t do any of these things.  Of course, like every set of laws, there are exceptions.  The exceptions to copyrights are called “fair use.”  For example, you can quote a book or a movie in a review.  You can also do a parody.  Fair use is a complicated concept, though, and there are whole books written on the topic.

So how do you get a copyright?  This article, for example, is something I wrote.  I own the copyright to it, and you can’t take credit for it or make money off of it without my permission.  You can share this article (please do, as a matter of fact) so long as you share it intact and with credit to me and Monroe Local.  There is no magic about owning the copyright.  I can put at the bottom of it © 2017 Lori B. Duff if I want to be absolutely clear, but I don’t have to.

According to the 1976 Copyright Act, simply the act of creating this article in tangible or digital form secures the copyright.  Even though at this very moment, not hard copy of this article exists, and it isn’t even finished, because I have encoded it in Microsoft Word in a way in which is it “fixed in a copy” – defined as a “material object from which a work can be read or visually perceived either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”  So, since I wrote it, and since you can read it on my computer screen, it’s copyrighted.

Of course, some devious person may be reading over my shoulder and copying this on to his laptop, and may publish it before me claiming it to be theirs.  This is why “Copyright Registration” is a thing.  I can register what I’ve written to make in absolutely iron clad that it is mine.  I can also put the © thingie at the bottom to remind you not to steal my intellectual property.  Especially if it isn’t published.

Copyright lasts, generally speaking, for the author’s life plus 70 years.  This means that one day after the 70th anniversary of my death, you can sell this article for your own profit.

Best of luck with that.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  No lawyer can advise you about your case without hearing the particular details of your unique situation.

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