Copyright is a form of protection that attaches to an original work of authorship the moment the work of authorship is fixed in a tangible form: for example, a drawing the moment it is put onto paper or a song the moment it is recorded onto a compact disk. The advantages of copyright protection overwhelmingly outweigh the disadvantages. There are nevertheless several disadvantages to keep in mind.
Copyright protection prohibits individuals other than the owner from reproducing, displaying or performing the protected work. Thus, copyright protection may prevent your work from being disseminated as broadly or as quickly as you might like. This is primarily a disadvantage for an author seeking public attention rather than financial gain. For example, an unknown musician may want to get her music out into the public in order to generate interest. However, people may be reluctant to distribute her songs through the Internet and other media due to a fear of copyright infringement.
Copyright offers limited protection. For example, copyright protects a particular expression of an idea (as in images, words or sounds) but it does not protect the idea or concept itself. Thus, if you draw a picture of a new type of shower head, others will be prohibited from copying the drawing, but they can still use the basic premise to build an actual shower head. Thus, a disadvantage of copyright protection is that, because people assume copyright protects more than it does, they may neglect to obtain other forms of applicable protection: in this example, patent protection.
Copyright protection does not last forever. The duration depends on several factors. Generally, protection for a work created on or after January 1, 1978 lasts 70 years following the death of the author. Determining the duration of protection for a work created prior to January 1, 1978 is more complicated and depends on a host of factors, including whether the work was published and whether the author or his family applied for an extension. This presents problems for people attempting to use a particular work legally, as they must do some research or contact the U.S. Copyright Office to determine whether the work has entered the public domain or else risk committing copyright infringement.
In order to bring a copyright infringement suit in court, you must register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. Moreover, registration must be completed within three months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work if you wish to seek statutory damages and attorneys fees. Unfortunately, registration takes time and requires a filing fee.
Thomas King is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law where he served as managing editor of the "Pittsburgh Journal of Environmental and Public Health Law." He currently lives in Aberdeen, Washington where he writes and practices law.