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What Is a Copyright and Why Do I Need One?

A United States copyright is a form of protection for intellectual property that is granted by the U.S. Constitution and encompasses both published and unpublished works. The copyright, which is a form of intellectual property law, is registered by the Library of Congress which protects the rights of an author of either artistic or intellectual works. The copyright protects these works from being reproduced or distributed without the owner’s permission. The copyright is a means to prove ownership of a work and is the basis for an owner to take legal action against others who expropriate their intellectual property. A variation of copyright law (Section 101) is where an employee produces a work of intellectual property and the ownership is retained by the employer, a situation known as “work made for hire.” Once a work is in a “fixed form” (e.g., written on paper, stored on a computer disk, etched in stone) the author is protected by copyright law. Ideas still “in one’s head” are not protected by copyright laws.

Copyrights can protect original works such as writing of all sorts (such as books, paintings, drawings, photographs, movies, poetry, songs, software, to name a few). Copyrights cannot be used to protect an idea or specific facts, only the original expression of an idea or fact into a unique intellectual work. Copyrights only apply to works of authorship. For protection of discoveries or inventions, these are covered by patent law.

Though technically copyright protection is automatically afforded the author of an original work, filing for copyright protection is usually necessary when one wishes to take legal action against a party who copies or reproduces the work without the author’s permission. By obtaining a legal copyright you are afforded specific rights, which are referred to as Fair Use. By the same token, you may not use the copyrighted works of others without either obtaining explicit permission or by ensuring that the work is now in the public domain (i.e., that the copyright has expired).

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