Copyright Definition

Learn more about what a copyright is and how to get one.

Ready to start your dream business? Check the availability of your new company name to get started.

Starts at $49 + state fees and only takes 5-10 minutes

Excellent Trustpilot reviews 10,288 reviews Trustpilot reviews
Copyright Definition

All business owners should familiarize themselves with copyrights. This is especially true if you run a creative business, publish blog posts, or even just maintain a company website. 

Keep reading to learn the complete copyright definition. Plus, discover the advantages and disadvantages of copyrights, other names for them, copyright examples, and how to obtain one. 

What is a copyright?

The definition of copyright is in its name: it’s the right to copy. A person who owns the copyright to a piece of intellectual property is the only person who can copy or give permission to copy it. 

We’ll go into more detail on what types of intellectual property can be covered by a copyright later in this article. But generally speaking, original works of authorship (such as song lyrics, illustrations, photos, paintings, articles, and the like) are considered copyrighted as soon as they are created and  “fixed” (made tangible). 

Who owns a copyright?

Anyone can be a copyright owner. Once you create an original work and fix it (I.E. write it down, publish it, put it on a website, or otherwise make it tangible), you are the copyright owner. 

That said, copyright law also extends to works for hire. For instance, if you create something within the scope of your employment, then your employer will own the copyright to your work. This same law applies to commissioned works created as the result of an independent contractor relationship. 

Copyright ownership can also be extended through things like wills or contracts (whereby the copyright owner transfers or bequeaths ownership to someone else). 

Rights Provided Under Copyright Law 

U.S. copyright laws extend the following rights to copyright holders: 

  • Reproduction rights
  • The right to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted original
  • Distribution rights (the ability to distribute copies of the copyrighted work via sale, rental, lease, or lending)
  • Rights to perform or play the work publicly (this usually applies to works such as songs, poems, or audio recordings)
  • The right to display the work publicly

When does copyright protection begin and how long does it last?

Copyright protection begins as soon as a work is created and fixed. Fixed simply means that the work is produced somewhere: I.E. written down, published, recorded, or otherwise made tangible. 

Under current U.S. copyright law, works created on or after January 1, 1978 are copyrighted for the full life of the author, plus 70 years after the author’s death. Joint works are copyrighted for 70 years after the last surviving author’s death. Works for hire and anonymous or pseudonymous works are protected for 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation (whichever is shorter). 

(Note: Protection lengths are similar in other countries. For instance, in Canada, copyrights last for the author’s full life plus 50 years after the last day of the calendar year of their death.) 

Copyright Examples

As we mentioned earlier, copyrights extend to virtually any form of intellectual property that can be considered an original work and is fixed. Just a few examples of copyrighted works include: 

  • Song lyrics
  • Articles / blog posts
  • Website content
  • Original illustrations or photos
  • Books
  • Movies
  • Plays
  • Musicals
  • Songs
  • Original recordings
  • Musical compositions
  • Paintings
  • Sculptures
  • Works of art
  • Computer programs
  • Architectural works
  • Much more

What can’t be copyrighted?

Keep in mind that certain things cannot be copyrighted. For instance, the Supreme Court says that to be copyrighted, a work has to show at least a modicum of creativity and have some form of tangible expression. That means that short phrases or titles can’t be copyrighted. 

Furthermore, the following can NEVER be copyrighted:

  • Ideas
  • Facts
  • Systems
  • Methods
  • Concepts
  • Principles
  • Processes
  • Procedures
  • Discoveries

Copyrights vs. Trademarks

For many of the items that cannot be copyrighted, such as names and titles, this is where trademarks come into play. While copyrights are for protecting individual, authored works, trademarks apply to company-wide elements like logos and slogans.

Common forms of trademark include: 

  • Company names
  • A word
  • Company slogans
  • Symbols
  • Logos
  • Specific colors

Copyrights vs. Patents

A patent, on the other hand, protects technical inventions, mechanical processes, or machine designs that are new, unique, and usable in some type of industry. Obtaining a registered patent safeguards the invention or processes from being copied, sold, created, or used without the inventor’s consent. The technicality of patents means that acquiring or protecting one often takes the help of a specialist, such as a patent lawyer.

Thinking of starting a business?

We can help you form it.

START NOW

Copyright Benefits

The main copyright advantage is protecting your intellectual property. For example, if you’re a music creator, then another artist can’t come along and make money off of your song. 

Conversely, if you run a small business and put together an amazing set of blog posts that helps your company’s website improve its SEO ranking, your competitors can’t just come along and copy your content. 

Copyright Disadvantages

There are no real disadvantages to having a copyright on your own property, however, you could be in trouble if you infringe on someone else’s copyright. Penalties for copyright infringement can be quite severe. 

They can include fines of up to $150,000 in the U.S., plus attorney and court costs. Furthermore, the individual whose copyrights you infringed upon could sue you for even more. 

As a general rule, the reproduction, distribution, performance, or public display of a copyrighted work without the permission of the rightful copyright owner will constitute copyright infringement. If someone infringes on your valid copyright, you may have a claim for damages. 

However, there are some important defenses to copyright infringement to be aware of. Examples of copyright infringement defenses include:  

  • Innocent infringement
  • Fair use
  • Independent creation of the work without copying
  • Use of the work under a license agreement
  • Abandonment by the copyright owner

If you’re accused of infringing a valid copyright, these and other defenses may be available to you. 

Note: Copyright infringement can cost you even more in other countries. For example, in Canada the fines can reach up to $1 million.

How do I get a copyright?

Copyrights begin as soon as you create and fix a work. However, experts recommend that you register your copyright for an extra layer of protection. You can use your copyright certificate in court to prove that you own the work in question, thus making your legal case stronger. 

Registering your copyright also enables the public to find copyright information about your work, as well as provides notice to the public that someone is claiming copyright to the work. 

You can register your copyright by filling out an application on the U.S. Copyright Office registration page

We Can Help

Copyrights are an important part of entrepreneurship. Not only do they protect your original works, they also help ensure your competitors can’t benefit from them. You can even take your copyright protection to the next level by registering it. 

That said, understanding copyrights is just one small part of business ownership. That’s why we’re here to support you throughout every step of the process. Need an operating agreement template for your limited liability company (LLC)? Want us to be your registered agent so you have the peace of mind knowing alerts are handled promptly? No problem! From formation to compliance, we’ve got you covered. 

And with our worry-free services and 60-day money-back guarantee, there’s never been a better time to discover the ZenBusiness difference. 

Copyright FAQ

  • Do I need an attorney to file for a copyright?

    No, you don’t need an attorney to file for a copyright, though having one could be helpful. However, if you are sued or plan to sue for copyright infringement, you probably want to consider consulting with legal counsel.

  • What might constitute copyright infringement?

    There are countless scenarios in which copyright infringement might occur. For example, using video created by another in an ad, posting copyrighted images on your social media, and publicly playing copyrighted music inside your business all might constitute copyright infringement.

  • What remedies are available for copyright infringement?

    The Copyright Act provides for the recovery of statutory damages of not less than $750 for copyright infringement. Additionally, victims of copyright infringement may sue for actual damages and profits of the infringer.

  • Can someone lose a copyright?

    Yes, someone can lose a copyright. Copyright protection only lasts for a specific term. After the expiration of the copyright term, the work will fall into the public domain for use without restrictions by the public at large.

  • How much does it cost to file for a copyright?

    Fees for copyright registration currently range from $35 to $500, depending on a number of factors. However, these fees are subject to change, so you might want to check periodically at Copyright.gov.

  • How long does a copyright last?

    As discussed above, the length of a valid copyright will depend on a number of factors. Generally, however, a copyright will last until 70 years after the death of the author or 120 years from the date of creation of the work.

    Disclaimer – The content on this page is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal, tax, or accounting advice. If you have specific questions about any of these topics, seek the counsel of a licensed professional.

Small-business owners

Ready to get started?

Get the fastest information, worry free services, and expert support you need.

Start Now