What Are Copyright Laws Used to Protect?

Businesses, as well as anyone in a creative endeavor, such as artists and authors, need legal protection for intellectual property. Many forms of intellectual property are protected by copyright, but not all. To safeguard your business interests, it is important to know what works copyright laws protect, the nature and duration of the protection, and what types of intellectual property are not covered by copyright.


Under United States law, a copyright begins at the time a creative work is put into a tangible or fixed form. For example, a writer’s novel is protected by copyright as soon as she puts the words down on paper. Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office does not grant the copyright. Rather, registration creates a public record of the author’s ownership. You can register a copyright only if you are the author or if you have a right to the work through the author, as in the case of an heir. In most cases, copyright protection extends from the time a work is created until 70 years after the author’s death.

Works created “for hire” belong to the business or person who contracts and pays for the work. A work for hire enjoys copyright protection for 95 years from its first publication or 120 years from its creation, whichever term expires sooner.

Covered Works

Copyright protects the author’s rights to written or literary works, music, photographs and other pictorial works. Graphic images and sculpture, performances, motion pictures and sound recordings, and architectural plans and designs, as well as the buildings themselves, enjoy copyright protection.

A derivative work is a new, original piece of work based on a previously-created work and may enjoy copyright protection if it is sufficiently different from the original. For example, a translation of a foreign-language novel and a painting of a sculpture are derivative works. If the underlying work -- the foreign-language novel or sculpture -- is still under copyright, however, the derivative artist may be liable for copyright infringement depending on the circumstances.

Read More: How to Copyright Multiple Similar Works

Author's Rights

Essentially, copyrights are used to protect the author’s property rights. This means an author has the exclusive right to use or authorize the use of his work, including the right to copy or distribute the work. The copyright owner may use the copyright to prevent others from using the work. Authors have the right to sell, rent or lend their work or copies of their work. The author’s rights extend to the performance or display of a work. For example, the author of a song has the right to authorize the performance or recording of the music. In some cases, limited copying falls under the doctrine of "fair use" and does not violate copyright; for example, when a passage from a written work is quoted in another work.


Copyrights do not protect creative works that are not in a fixed form. For instance, an improvised speech is not protected by copyright. However, a recording of the speech may be copyrighted. Symbols, names, titles or short phrases do not receive copyright protection; these types of intellectual property may, however, enjoy trademark protection. Ideas, designs and inventions may be patented through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (which also registers trademarks). Information that is common knowledge, such as a calendar, cannot be copyrighted.

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