A List of Copyright Rules & Procedures

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Companies have to be careful that they don't infringe on a copyright when they use text, photographs and other works in the course of their operations. On the other hand, they also want to protect the material they create. In both cases they have to be familiar with the rules governing copyright and how they offer legal protection for creators of original material.

Protecting Your Work

Copyright automatically applies when you create the work in question. Once you write something down, record a piece of music, take a picture or make a movie, it is copyrighted. While you can register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, registration is not required. Once you have created a work and own the copyright, it is your responsibility to enforce it. If you see that someone is infringing your copyright, you have to obtain proof and file a complaint. You may have to go to court to receive damages.

Your Rights

Copyright law confers exclusive rights on the copyright holder. According to the rules of copyright that apply to all works, you have the exclusive right to make and distribute copies and to to prepare derivative works. For visual works, you have the exclusive right to display them in public. For theatrical and musical works, you have the exclusive right to perform them or have them performed. For sound and movie recordings, your exclusive rights include the right to play them in public. In addition to these exclusive rights, you may authorize others to carry out these functions and charge a fee, issue licenses against payment or charge royalties.

Covered Works

All works created by one or several creators, or works for hire prepared under contract and by employees, are subject to copyright. This specifically includes literary works such as books, plays, articles, poetry or news reports. Musical works such as compositions, songs, opera and their recordings are also covered, with both the music and words qualifying for copyright. Dramatic performances including dance, plays and pantomimes, as well as accompanying music, are copyrighted. Pictures, including photographs, graphics, movies and audio visual works including three-dimensional representations such as sculptures are covered. Finally, architectural works, including drawings and the resulting buildings or structures are copyrighted.

Not Covered

Works that are too short or intellectual concepts can't be copyrighted. As a result, you can't copyright words or short phrases. Theories, discoveries and information can't be copyrighted, but the written descriptions are subject to copyright. Separately, ideas, procedures and concepts are covered by patents, not copyright.


For works published after Jan. 1, 1978, copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. For works for hire, it lasts 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation, whichever is less. Copyright has expired for works published before 1923, and these works are in the public domain.

If you want to use works published between 1923 and 1978, copyright depends on whether it was registered, renewed and whether proper procedures were followed. It is safer to assume such works are copyrighted unless you can demonstrate clearly that their copyright has expired.


About the Author

Bert Markgraf is a freelance writer with a strong science and engineering background. He started writing technical papers while working as an engineer in the 1980s. More recently, after starting his own business in IT, he helped organize an online community for which he wrote and edited articles as managing editor, business and economics. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from McGill University.

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