What Is Copyright Law?

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You've probably seen an anti-copyright warning before the start of a movie, threatening hefty fines and jail time for infringers. But it's not just movies that are protected by copyright law. Copyright protection, often represented by the © symbol, applies to any original work that can be seen, read or heard. Whether you're a consumer or a business owner, it's important to understand copyright law and know how to avoid infringement.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Copyright is a type of intellectual property protection automatically given to any tangible work, including articles, blogs, books, songs, pictures, paintings, podcasts, video and software.

How Do You Avoid Copyright Infringement?

Any instance of copying someone else’s original work without an agreement to do so falls under copyright infringement. Examples include copying books, blogs or podcasts without permission, using other people’s photographs on your blog without permission, copying software code without giving proper credit, downloading movies and music without proper payment for use, recording movies in a theater and creating videos with unlicensed music clips.

To avoid copyright infringement, always use caution if something is not your original work. Even if something doesn't carry the copyright symbol, it's still not yours to use in any way you want if you didn't create it yourself. Check for licenses and permissions before you use another's work and comply with their terms.

A major exception to copyright infringement laws is fair use. Basically, if you use a photograph or an article for educational or noncommercial purposes, you may be exempt from infringement.

What Will Happen if You Break the Copyright Law?

If you break copyright laws, the person with the copyright protection can file a civil lawsuit against you in federal district court. And cases of willful infringement for profit may be subject to a criminal investigation. If you are found to have infringed on someone's copyright, you may be liable for statutory damages up to $30,000 for each work infringed. In the case of willful infringement, you may be liable for statutory damages up to $150,000 for each work infringed.

What Is a Copyright and What Does It Protect?

Anything produced in a tangible medium, such as a work that can be seen, read or heard, has automatic copyright protection under U.S. laws. This includes original works on paper, digital recordings and electronic media. To have this protection, it is not necessary to affix the copyright symbol to your work, but it’s a good idea to do so. You don’t have to register a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, but you must do so if you want to sue someone for copyright infringement of your work. Copyright registration is a simple process, which can be done online or by mail, but it can take several months for the copyright to be issued. The average wait time for web applications is seven months and you can expect to wait about nine months for mail applications.

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About the Author

Claire is a qualified lawyer and specialized in family law before becoming a full-time writer. She has written for many digital publications, including The Washington Post, Forbes, Vice and HealthCentral.