The author of an original design is eligible for copyright protection. This protection provides the copyright owner the exclusive ability to make copies of the design, incorporate the design into other works, distribute copies of the design to the public via sale or rental and display the design publicly. Violation of the copyright is illegal but there are certain limited uses of copyrighted work that are permitted as long as the copyright owner is compensated and compliance with laws are met. This is referred to as "fair use" and relieves the user of the design from copyright liability.
Obtain a copyright at time of creation. When an original design is created in a fixed format, the author has automatic copyright of the design. When the design is created by a person working as an employee, his employer is considered the copyright owner. If the design has more than one author, the copyright is shared among the design's authors unless an agreement exists stating otherwise. This way of obtaining copyright does not require registration or publication of the design with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Obtain a copyright at time of publication. Publication involves the public distribution of a design by selling it to the public or transferring it by rental or lease. It is not enough to publicly display the design to have the work considered "published." Date of publication can affect the length of the copyright protection for anonymous designs and those created by employees. Publication allows notice of copyright to be displayed, along with the year of publication and the name of the copyright owner. Published works have different deposit requirements when registering the copyright than unpublished works.
Register the copyright. Copyright registration is not a requirement for copyright protection; it serves mostly as a legal formality since a public record is created of the copyright. However, there are advantages associated with registration when violations of copyright are settled in court. Registration is necessary before a lawsuit is filed in court. When registration occurs five years before or after publication, it provides primary evidence of the validity of the copyright in court. Registration within three months of publication or before violation of the copyright occurs grants the copyright owner statutory damages and attorney fees as part of the court award. Registration also gives the right to record the copyright registration with U.S. Customs to prevent the import of copies that violate the copyright.