U.S. Copyright Protections: 10 Q & A

There’s often confusion of what a copyright does for publishers, the advantages of having it registered with the copyright office, and who can own a copyright. This post explains what the copyright law act does, and how it protects authors.

Although there are many questions to copyrights, I chose 10 of the ones I was most curious about when I first started publishing.

Note: These answers pertain to the year 1976 (onward) when the Copyright Act (title 17, U.S. Code) was enacted. Incidences and enactments prior to that year are not discussed here. If you published a work prior to that year, please visit www.copyright.gov for more information.

 

1. Do you need to register a copyright?

No.

Published works immediately become the property of the author that created the work. Only the author can claim rights to the created work. Sections 107 through 122 of the 1976 Copyright Act establish limitations on these rights.

 

2. If a copyright is issued automatically, then why register the work?

Registration is recommended for a number of reasons:

  • People choose to have their copyright on public record and have a certificate of registration.
  • Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation.
  • If registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law.

 

3. Are there provisions, or exceptions for copyright ownership?

Yes.

The most common exceptions or obstacles that authors should be aware of are:

  • If the author was for hire by another. For example, if you were paid to write a publication under employ of another party, then there is good chance that the employer is the owner of the published work pending the hiring agreement.
  • If there are two authors or more, then they all share in the copyright. Furthermore, they should all take into consideration that any of the other parties can negotiate a contract without their permission. (A reason to register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office.)
  • Minors may claim copyright; however, state laws may regulate their business dealings because of their age.

 

4. Who Can Claim Copyright? Can there be more than one author?

Anyone can claim a copyright. Only the author or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully claim copyright. However, if there are two or more authors, they are often considered as “joint authors” or creating a “collective work.”

 

5. Can two or more authors provide contributions to a single work without being considered joint authors for copyright purposes?

“Yes. If at the time of creation, the authors did not intend their works to be part of an inseparable whole, the fact that their works are later put together does not create a joint work. Rather, the result is considered a collective work. In this case, each author owns a copyright in only the material he or she added to the finished product. For example, in the 1950’s, Vladimir writes a famous novel full of complex literary allusions. In the 1980’s, his publisher issues a student edition of the work with detailed annotations written by an English professor. The student edition is a collective work. Vladimir owns the copyright in the novel, but the professor owns the annotations.”
(Answer copied verbatim from http://fairuse.stanford.edu.)

 

6. Can a copyright owner transfer some or all of their rights?

Yes.

When a copyright owner wants to sell or license their rights commercially, they can transfer the rights to another who’s responsible for marketing and collecting payments for the work. The copyright owner also has the right to place limitations on their contract, such as where the work can be sold and how.

Transfer of copyright can be achieved in the following ways:

A) Assignment: The copyright owner transfers all of their rights unconditionally.
B) License: The copyright transfers limited rights of the work.
C) Exclusive license: The transferred rights can be exercised only by the owner of the license (the licensee). This limitation includes the person who granted the license (the licensor). Meaning, these two parties will not contract with any other parties.
D) Non-exclusive license: The two parties agree to a contract, and both exercise the same rights and can also contract with other parties.

 

7. Are there time limitations for transfers of copyright ownership?

Transfers of copyright ownership: Authors or their heirs have the right to terminate any transfer of copyright ownership 35 to 40 years after it is made.

 

8. Must I display the copyright, and what is the proper way to display it?

“The use of a copyright notice is no longer required under U. S. law, although it is often beneficial,” as of March 1, 1989 (Copyright Basics, circ01.pdf; circular 1, reviewed: 05 ⁄ 2012).

But for those that want to display it, the copyright notice should contain these three elements as in the first example. The 2nd and 3rd examples below are optional.

  • The symbol © (the letter C in a circle), or the word “Copyright,” or the abbreviation “Copr.”
  • Year of publication
  • Name of the copyright owner or abbreviation by which the owner is recognized

Examples:

  • © 2011 John Doe
  • Text © J.K. Rowling
  • Cover design and interior illustrations by MinaLima © Pottermore Limited

 

9. Can I protect my work by sending a copy to myself?

No.

This is sometimes called a “poor man’s copyright.” The idea behind this practice is to prove that you had first claim of rights by sending a copy to yourself. Your intended proof to authorities would be to show the dated postmark, registered postal receipt, or e-mail. This is not acceptable proof in a court of law, even if the letter/parcel with the postmark/registered receipt is left unopened.

Before I applied for my patent, I discussed this process with an attorney. The reason why this is not acceptable (legally) is that time stamps can be mechanically reproduced. Witnesses show legitimacy. In my case, as an inventor, the best process before patenting a product was to keep an inventor’s notebook and have at least two people review, sign and date my progress. Witnesses can be brought into court to validate your claims in case of litigation, machines can’t.

 

10. Is my copyright good in other countries?

Most likely, yes. The U.S has copyright agreements with most countries throughout the world. If there’s doubt or concern, the author would be advised to see which countries honor each other copyrights and which ones do not have a copyright relationship with the United States. See Circular 38a, International Copyright Relations of the United States.

 

Sources:
https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ38b.pdf
https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf#page=7
https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/chapter-1
https://www.quora.com/What-is-a-non-exclusive-agreement-How-does-that-differ-from-an-exclusive-agreement

 

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