Do It Yourself Copyright

 Have you ever written a computer program, song, article, painted a picture, taken a photo, designed unique jewelry, or other work, and wondered if you should copyright it?  There is good news:  copyright law, unlike patent law, protects a work as soon as it is fixed in a tangible medium.  For example, as soon as an artist paints a picture, the picture is protected by copyright.  Now you may wonder, why register the work?  There are substantial benefits to registration.

First, registered works enjoy a presumption of copyrightability.  Second, if registered prior to an infringement, the copyright owner is entitled to “statutory damages,” a legal minimum amount, even if you cannot prove any monetary damage.    Third, the copyright statute provides for attorneys fees for infringement.

You may also wonder about the value of a copyright notice.  Since 1989, the notice is not required.  Yet, notice is still highly recommended.  An example of a notice for a work created in 1999 by ABC Co., Inc., would read as follows:

Copyright 1999 ABC Co., Inc.   All Rights Reserved

The “©” or “Copr.” may be used instead of “copyright.”  The phrase “All Rights Reserved” is useful but not required.

You apply for registration on a government form.  The filing fee is modest ($30).   Forms are available from the Copyright Office, including their web site at www.loc.gov/copyright/.  There are several forms.  The most common are Form TX (for literary works, e.g., articles, computer programs), Form VA (for visual arts, e.g., paintings, logos, blueprints, sculptures), Form SR (for sound recordings, e.g., music, dramatic readings, lectures) and Form PA (for performing arts, e.g., videos, motion pictures).  Selecting the right form can range from easy to confusing.  For example, what if you create a CD ROM with video, music, literature and still pictures on it?  The Copyright web site also has instructions with the forms and “Circulars”, which provide more information.

Completing the form, like selecting it, can be easy.  Yet, challenging issues such as determining the authorship claim can be overlooked.  Also, if the work was made by an employee or independent contractor, determining if it is a “work made for hire” is tricky.  Other common complications arise if there are prior versions of the work or portions of the work that are taken from other works.  The Copyright Office requires that you deposit two copies (one if unpublished) of the “best version.”  For proprietary material such as software, how do you deposit copies and still keep secrecy?  Another typical software issue is who are the authors if made in part by employees or independent contractors?  These issues may be solved by reading circulars, but often require an expert.

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