A Brief Overview of Copyright Law

Posted by Daniel H. Park on

A copyright is a right provided under the Copyright Act (the “Act”) to protect authors of creative works.  It is a form of protection provided to original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression. This protection begins at the moment the work is created, upon the “fixation” of the work on a tangible medium. In other words, as soon as pen is put to paper, paint is put to canvas, or a photograph is saved to a memory card, that work is protected by law.

The work must be original.
Originality is the minimal requirement to be considered a protected work.  This means that the work must be independently created with some minimal level of creativity. This protection embraces a wide range of works, including:

  • Literary works – books, periodicals, computer programs;
  • Musical compositions including accompanying words;
  • Dramatic works including accompanying music – plays and musicals;
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • Architectural works, plans and drawings;
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works – paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures.

The work must be “fixed”.

A work must be set down or fixed in a tangible medium of expression to receive protection.  It must be embodied in a material object of some kind whether it be paper, canvas, a hard drive, a memory card, etc.  The work does not need to be the final version to be protected.

Copyright protects the expression of ideas. The Act protects the expression of ideas rather than the ideas themselves.  So, an author’s particular rendering and elaboration of an idea is protected.  But the underlying elements that are fundamental to the work, i.e. the ideas behind the work, are not protected.

What does copyright protect?
The Act provides the exclusive right for an author or creator to:

  • Reproduce the work including reproductions of “substantially similar” works;
  • Create derivative works based on the original work;
  • Distribute copies to the public;
  • Display and perform the work publicly.
This protection lasts for 70 years plus the life of the author, or 120 years if created by corporation.

Enforcement of a copyright.

An unauthorized violation of any of these exclusive rights is considered an infringement for which civil and criminal penalties may apply.  While registration of a work with the U.S. Copyright Office is not required for the work to be protected, as the U.S. Supreme Court recently confirmed, completion of the registration process is necessary before the owner can sue for infringement.