The One Thing You Need to Know About Copyright

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The One Thing You Need to Know About Copyright


Copyright issues are by far the most frequently asked topic we face here at Maddrey PLLC. It also happens to be my favorite area of law! Over the years I have written and given talks on copyright, one fallacy comes up time and time again: that you don’t have a copyright in a creation until you file paperwork and pay money to the government. That is simply untrue.

To understand why you have to go back to the founding of the United States and to the original text of the Constitution. In Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 which states:

[The Congress shall have power] “To promote the progress of science and the useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

I know this is the legal nerd in me showing, but how cool is that! So many things we associate with the Constitution (Bill of Rights, Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Assembly, etc.) were amendments to the original document; copyright is right there in the original document.

Once we understand that this clause gives Congress the power to confer exclusive rights on creators, the next step is to take a look at the law that governs copyright, in this case, The Copyright Act of 1976.

Yes, that is not a typo, the last major revision of copyright law was in 1976!

In that statute, it defines the copyright owner as having the rights and protections listed (right to reproduce, creative derivative works, etc.) at the creation of “[an] original work of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression…” 17 USC § 102(a).


So let’s break that down a bit.

What is an “original work of authorship”? Well, it is anything…umm…original. It can include literary works, musical works, dramatic works, pictorial or sculptural works, and many more. What about “fixed in any tangible medium of expression”? That simply means that it has to be recorded or written down or otherwise made tangible; i.e. you can’t copyright an idea, you can only copyright the expression of that idea.


Putting it all together.

When you create something original, and it is fixed in any tangible medium, you now have, and are entitled to all the benefits of, a copyright. There is nothing else you have to do. You have it. Good job!

Well then, what is all this about the Copyright Office and registration?

The full answer will come in another blog post, but for now, realize that if your copyright is infringed, you have to have it registered with the government before you can sue someone. BUT YOU STILL OWN THAT COPYRIGHT EVEN IF YOU NEVER REGISTER!

Now, I am a very enthusiastic proponent of registering your copyright, but as your takeaway from this post, realize that you own a huge number of copyrights right now, as you sit there reading this. Way to go you!


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