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Copyright Frequently Asked Questions

What is a copyright?

A copyright is a grant of exclusive rights to a creator of original works, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression.  As its name implies, a copyright originally protected an owner’s right against unauthorized copies of their work(s). Today, a copyright owner’s rights have expanded to protect against other unauthorized uses.

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

No matter how much a person changes an original work, it is not possible to claim copyright in someone else’s work. However, upon changing a work, such as making a derivative work, a copyright exists in the derivative work. Even if it is later found that your work infringes upon the original copyright holder’s work, a copyright will nevertheless exist in the derivative work.

What are derivative works?

As defined by the statute, a “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more pre-existing works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.

What is the difference between a copyright, a trademark and a patent?

A copyright is a grant of exclusive rights to a creator of original works, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression.A trademark is a word, name, symbol or device, which is used in commerce to indicate the source of a product and to differentiate the product from others. Trademark rights may be used to prevent others from using a similar mark that creates a likelihood of confusion or creates actual confusion.Often, a work will have both a copyright and a trademark. For example, a brand logo may be both copyrighted and trademarked. A copyright will exist over the logo because it is an expression of creativity by an artist. The trademark on the logo will protect it from unauthorized uses for similar products while the copyright will protect the owner’s rights from unauthorized reproduction, separate from the brand its used to recognize.A patent is a grant of a property right to the inventor for an invention, issued by the Patent and Trademark Office. A patent holder has the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing

What are the consequences of registering a copyright with regard to other countries?

There is no such thing as an international copyright per se. Protection against unauthorized use in a particular country depends on the national laws of that country. However, through various treaties such as the Berne Convention, the Universal Copyright Convention, the World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty and many others, most foreign nations will extend copyright protection to works granted a copyright in the United States. If the country in which protection is sought is a member of any of the international copyright conventions, complying with certain conditions of that convention can protect the work.

The main convention, The Berne Convention (established in 1886), includes a principle called “national treatment.” This principle states that each member country of the convention must give citizens of other member states the same rights of copyright that it gives to its own citizens. So while a U.S. copyright holders rights may vary somewhat in a foreign country, the core rights will nevertheless exist. An example of a slight variant is that the Berne Convention only mandates that each member country grant copyright ownership for the life of the author plus at least 50 years. So it is certainly possible that a copyright holder’s estate will have copyright in the United States 51 years after the author’s death, but not in other countries.

What role does a copyright notice play? What is a valid copyright notice?

A proper copyright notice should be visually perceptible and contain three elements: 1) the symbol “©”, the word “Copyright”, or the abbreviation “Copr.” 2) The year of first publication; 3) the name of the copyright owner, an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized, or a generally known alternate designation of owner. For example, “A Story Written © 2012.”

The Copyright Law in the United States no longer requires the use of a copyright notice. A notice of copyright may be placed on works that have been published and are distributed or available to the public. Unlike in Trademark registration, the copyright owner can use the copyright symbol at his or her discretion.

There are benefits however to placing a © symbol. Use of the symbol informs the public that the work is protected by copyright and identifies the owner. Furthermore, in the event of infringement, and the work has a copyright notice, the court will not give credence to an assertion of innocent infringement since the infringer was aware that the work was copyrighted.


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