Intellectual property law is the branch of law pertaining to the legal rights to creative works and inventions. Three of the most common (and most commonly misunderstood) types of intellectual property are copyrights, trademarks, and patents. It’s easy to be confused by these terms, since they all seem to serve similar purposes, but copyrights, trademarks, and patents are very different types of protections. From the kinds of creative works they protect, to the process by which they are obtained, to the duration of the protection they offer, it’s important to understand the differences between these three distinct forms of intellectual property.

Today, in the first of a three-part series addressing common intellectual property questions, our corporate lawyers at Patrick Harper & Dixon, LLC will take a closer look at the first kind of intellectual property protection: copyright. To learn more, read parts two (What is a Trademark?) and three (What is a Patent?) of this series, or contact our qualified business attorneys today.

What is copyright?

In America, copyright protection is recognized as such a vital right that it was originally outlined in the United States Constitution. Article 1, Section 8 — known as the “Copyright Clause” — declares that Congress shall have power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” This is a broad statement intending to protect the rights of authors and their many forms of original expression. Since the time the Constitution was drafted, our lawmakers, courts, and scholars have attempted to clearly define the parameters of copyright protection, and its meaning has evolved over time. Though there is still room for interpretation when establishing copyright, today there are good legal guidelines in place to affirm and defend the rights of creators.

What is copyright’s purpose?

The purpose of copyright is to allow a creator to protect their work and choose the way it is made available to the public.

What is protected by copyright?

Copyright protects original “literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works” such as software code or academic exams. Poetry, music, novels, movies, maps, articles, photographs, choreography, computer programs, architecture, and other original creative or intellectual works “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” are all eligible for copyright protection.

What are the requirements for copyright protection?

To be copyrighted, a work need only be original, creative, and fixed in a tangible medium (i.e. you cannot copyright an abstract idea).

What rights are granted by copyright ownership?

A copyright holder retains exclusive rights to publish, display, distribute, reproduce, perform, and/or create derivatives of their original work. They also retain the right to transfer one or all of these rights through processes such as licensing or assigning. For example, an author might allow a magazine to publish an excerpt of their book while retaining the exclusive right to publish it in its entirety.

How is copyright protection granted?

Unlike trademarks and patents, copyright protection is automatically granted at the time of creation. In order to legally enforce it, however, you must register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO). This is a relatively simple process that requires filing a form, paying a fee, and sending the USCO a copy of the work.

How long does copyright protection last?

Copyright protection lasts for the duration of the creator’s life plus 70 years. If a work is created anonymously, pseudonymously, or for-hire, protection lasts either 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever comes sooner.

Copyright overlap with other types of intellectual property protections:

Sometimes a creative work is eligible for both copyright and trademark protection. Short words or phrases and graphic logos, while typically trademarked in association with a business’s branding, may also be copyrighted with sufficient creativity and originality.

To learn more about intellectual property rights, make sure to read parts two and three of this series, where we’ll discuss trademarks and patents respectively. If you’re in the Hickory, North Carolina area, you can also contact our small business lawyers directly at Patrick Harper & Dixon, LLP. Whether you’re seeking help establishing copyright for your work, or need more comprehensive business law advice, our qualified team of corporate attorneys is passionate about developing creative solutions to all your challenges. If you’re looking for a small business lawyer with big-city talent and small-town service, be sure to give us a call today. We’re ready to help.