U.S. Copyright Office
FAQ

Copyright in General

What Does Copyright Protect?

Who Can Register?

How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?

Can I Use Someone Else’s Work? Can Someone Else Use Mine?

Assignment/Transfer of Copyright Ownership

Copyright and Files

Definitions

Copyright in General

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

What does copyright protect?

Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.

When is my work protected?

Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

Do I have to register my copyright to be protected?

No. In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.

Why should I register my work if copyright protection is automatic?

Registration is recommended for a number of reasons. Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within 5 years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law.

I’ve heard about a “poor man’s copyright.” What is it?

The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a “poor man’s copyright.” There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.

Is my copyright good in other countries?

The United States has copyright relations with most countries throughout the world, and as a result of these agreements, we honor each other’s citizens’ copyrights. However, the United States does not have such copyright relationships with every country.

Protect

Can I copyright my website?

The original authorship appearing on a website may be protected by copyright. This includes writings, artwork, photographs, and other forms of authorship protected by copyright.

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Can I copyright my domain name?

Copyright law does not protect domain names. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit organization that has assumed the responsibility for domain name system management, administers the assignation of domain names through accredited registers.

How do I protect my recipe?

A mere listing of ingredients is not protected under copyright law. However, where a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a collection of recipes as in a cookbook, there may be a basis for copyright protection.

How do I copyright a name, title, slogan or logo?

Copyright does not protect names, titles, slogans, or short phrases. In some cases, these things may be protected as trademarks. Contact the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office for further information. However, copyright protection may be available for logo artwork that contains sufficient authorship. In some circumstances, an artistic logo may also be protected as a trademark.

How do I protect my idea?

Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work.

Does my work have to be published to be protected?

Publication is not necessary for copyright protection.

Can I register a diary I found in my grandmother’s attic?

You can register copyright in the diary only if you own the rights to the work, for example, by will or by inheritance. Copyright is the right of the author of the work or the author’s heirs or assignees, not of the one who only owns or possesses the physical work itself.

How do I protect my sighting of Elvis?

Copyright law does not protect sightings. However, copyright law will protect your photo (or other depiction) of your sighting of Elvis. No one can lawfully use your photo of your sighting, although someone else may file his own photo of his sighting. Copyright law protects the original photograph, not the subject of the photograph.

Does copyright protect architecture?

Yes. Architectural works became subject to copyright protection on December 1, 1990. The copyright law defines “architectural work” as “the design of a building embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings.” Copyright protection extends to any architectural work created on or after December 1, 1990. Architectural designs embodied in buildings constructed prior to December 1, 1990, are not eligible for copyright protection.

Who

Can foreigners register their works in the United States?

Any work that is protected by U.S. copyright law can be registered. This includes many works of foreign origin. All works that are unpublished, regardless of the nationality of the author, are protected in the United States.

Can a minor claim copyright?

Minors may claim copyright, and the U.S. Copyright Office issues registrations to minors, but state laws may regulate the business dealings involving copyrights owned by minors. For information on relevant state laws, consult an attorney.

Duration

How long does a copyright last?

The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors.

Do I have to renew my copyright?

No. Works created on or after January 1, 1978, are not subject to renewal registration. As to works published or registered prior to January 1, 1978, renewal registration is optional after 28 years but does provide certain legal advantages.

Can I Use Someone Else’s Work?
Can Someone Else Use Mine?

How do I get permission to use somebody else’s work?

You can ask for it. If you know who the copyright owner is, you may contact the owner directly. If you are not certain about the ownership or have other related questions, you may wish to request that the U.S. Copyright Office conduct a search of its records or you may search yourself. See the next question for more details.

How can I find out who owns a copyright?

The U.S. Copyright Office can provide you with the information available in their records. A search of registrations, renewals, and recorded transfers of ownership made before 1978 requires a manual search of their files. Upon request, their staff will search their records at the statutory rate of $165 for each hour (2 hour minimum). There is no fee if you conduct a search in person at the U.S. Copyright Office. Copyright registrations made and documents recorded from 1978 to date are available for searching online.

How can I obtain copies of someone else’s work and/or registration certificate?

The U.S. Copyright Office will not honor a request for a copy of someone else’s protected work without written authorization from the copyright owner or from his or her designated agent, unless the work is involved in litigation. In the latter case, a litigation statement is required. A certificate of registration for any registered work can be obtained for a fee of $35.

How much of someone else’s work can I use without getting permission?

Under the fair use doctrine of the U.S. copyright statute, it is permissible to use limited portions of a work including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports. There are no legal rules permitting the use of a specific number of words, a certain number of musical notes, or percentage of a work. Whether a particular use qualifies as fair use depends on all the circumstances.

How much do I have to change in order to claim copyright in someone else’s work?

Only the owner of copyright in a work has the right to prepare, or to authorize someone else to create, a new version of that work. Accordingly, you cannot claim copyright to another’s work, no matter how much you change it, unless you have the owner’s consent.

Somebody infringed my copyright. What can I do?

A party may seek to protect his or her copyrights against unauthorized use by filing a civil lawsuit in federal district court. If you believe that your copyright has been infringed, consult an attorney. In cases of willful infringement for profit, the U.S. Attorney may initiate a criminal investigation.

Could I be sued for using somebody else’s work? How about quotes or samples?

If you use a copyrighted work without authorization, the owner may be entitled to bring an infringement action against you. There are circumstances under the fair use doctrine where a quote or a sample may be used without permission. However, in cases of doubt, the U.S. Copyright Office recommends that permission be obtained.

Is there a list of songs or movies in the public domain?

No. The U.S. Copyright Office does not maintain such a list.

I saw an image on the Library of Congress website that I would like to use. Do I need to obtain permission?

With few exceptions, the Library of Congress does not own copyright in the materials in its collections and does not grant or deny permission to use the content mounted on its website. Responsibility for making an independent legal assessment of an item from the Library’s collections and for securing any necessary permissions rests with persons desiring to use the item.

My local copying store will not make reproductions of old family photographs. What can I do?

Photocopying shops, photography stores and other photo developing stores are often reluctant to make reproductions of old photographs for fear of violating the copyright law and being sued. These fears are not unreasonable, because copy shops have been sued for reproducing copyrighted works and have been required to pay substantial damages for infringing copyrighted works. The policy established by a shop is a business decision and risk assessment that the business is entitled to make, because the business may face liability if they reproduce a work even if they did not know the work was copyrighted.

In the case of photographs, it is sometimes difficult to determine who owns the copyright and there may be little or no information about the owner on individual copies. Ownership of a “copy” of a photograph – the tangible embodiment of the “work” – is distinct from the “work” itself – the intangible intellectual property. The owner of the “work” is generally the photographer or, in certain situations, the employer of the photographer. Even if a person hires a photographer to take pictures of a wedding, for example, the photographer will own the copyright in the photographs unless the copyright in the photographs is transferred, in writing and signed by the copyright owner, to another person. The subject of the photograph generally has nothing to do with the ownership of the copyright in the photograph. If the photographer is no longer living, the rights in the photograph are determined by the photographer’s will or passed as personal property by the applicable laws of intestate succession.

There may be situations in which the reproduction of a photograph may be a “fair use” under the copyright law. However, even if a person determines a use to be a “fair use” under the factors of section 107 of the copyright act , a copy shop or other third party need not accept the person’s assertion that the use is noninfringing. Ultimately, only a federal court can determine whether a particular use is, in fact, a fair use under the law.

Assignment

Are copyrights transferable?

Yes. Like any other property, all or part of the rights in a work may be transferred by the owner to another.

Do I have to submit a form to transfer a copyright?

There are no forms provided by the U.S. Copyright Office to effect a copyright transfer. The Office does, however, keep records of transfers if they are submitted to the Office.

Copyright and Files

Can I backup my computer software?

Yes, under certain conditions as provided by section 117 of the copyright act . Although the precise term used under section 117 is “archival” copy, not “backup” copy, these terms today are used interchangeably. This privilege extends only to computer programs and not to other types of works.

Under section 117, you or someone you authorize may make a copy of an original computer program if:

  • the new copy is being made for archival (i.e., backup) purposes only;
  • you are the legal owner of the copy; and
  • any copy made for archival purposes is either destroyed, or transferred with the original copy, once the original copy is sold, given away, or otherwise transferred.

You are not permitted under section 117 to make a backup copy of other material on a computer’s hard drive, such as other copyrighted works that have been downloaded (e.g., music, films).

It is also important to check the terms of sale or license agreement of the original copy of software in case any special conditions have been put in place by the copyright owner that might affect your ability or right under section 117 to make a backup copy. There is no other provision in the copyright act that specifically authorizes the making of backup copies of works other than computer programs even if those works are distributed as copies.

Can I copyright my website?

The original authorship appearing on a website may be protected by copyright. This includes writings, artwork, photographs, and other forms of authorship protected by copyright.

Who is an author?

Under the copyright law, the creator of the original expression in a work is its author. The author is also the owner of copyright unless there is a written agreement by which the author assigns the copyright to another person or entity, such as a publisher. In cases of works made for hire, the employer or commissioning party is considered to be the author.

What is publication?

Publication has a technical meaning in copyright law. According to the statute, “Publication is the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display constitutes publication. A public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication.” Generally, publication occurs on the date on which copies of the work are first made available to the public. For further information see Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Publication.”

What is a copyright notice? How do I put a copyright notice on my work?

A copyright notice is an identifier placed on copies of the work to inform the world of copyright ownership. The copyright notice generally consists of the symbol or word “copyright (or copr.),” the name of the copyright owner, and the year of first publication, e.g., ©2008 John Doe. While use of a copyright notice was once required as a condition of copyright protection, it is now optional. Use of the notice is the responsibility of the copyright owner and does not require advance permission from, or registration with, the U.S. Copyright Office.

What is copyright infringement?

As a general matter, copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.

Where is the public domain?

The public domain is not a place. A work of authorship is in the “public domain” if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.

What is a work made for hire?

Although the general rule is that the person who creates the work is its author, there is an exception to that principle. The exception is a work made for hire, which is a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or a work specially ordered or commissioned in certain specified circumstances. When a work qualifies as a work made for hire, the employer, or commissioning party, is considered to be the author.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).

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