In the fourth installment of our information series about intellectual property, we will give some basic information about the U.S. copyright system. Copyright protection is available for works of authorship, whether literary, artistic, musical, or otherwise. Works of authorship include sculptures, photographs, computer software, books, paintings, and just about any other artistic or literary endeavor. Under the federal laws, the author of a copyrightable work is protected as soon as a work is embodied in a tangible medium, such as paper, a CD, or a DVD. However, to obtain better rights and remedies, works should be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
“Useful articles”, that is, articles that have an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information, are not copyrightable. In general, copyright may be claimed only in an artistic work that can be identified separately from, and is capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article. For example, an artistic design imprinted on a fabric generally may be copyrightable, while the design of a dress using the fabric generally is not copyrightable. With regard to software, the copyright would protect the look and feel of the screens created on the computer, and the specific language of the code. Copyright would not protect what the code does — that is the realm for patent.
Copyright protection has three basic limitations. First, a copyright protects only against copying the copyrighted work and does not prohibit independent creation of the same or a similar work. Thus, unlike patent, the owner of a copyright may not be able to stop an alleged infringer if the alleged infringer can prove independent creation of the work. Second, a copyright protects only the expression of the idea and not the idea itself and does not prohibit copying the idea of the copyrighted work. Protection of the idea (technically, the embodiment of the idea) is the realm of patent. Third, a copyright protects only the expression of facts and not the facts themselves.
Currently, United States copyright registrations for published works last for the life of the author plus 70 years for individual authors and for 95 years from the date of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation for corporate authors. The federal law requires that, in order for this protection to remain, on any publicly distributed copy of a work of authorship a copyright “notice” must be affixed consisting of: (1) the “” symbol, the word “Copyright”, or the abbreviation “Copr.”; and (2) the date of first publication (with some exceptions); and (3) the name of the copyright owner. The copyright notice and registration of your works are a valuable form of protection for your works, telling the public that the work is your property. Without such a notice, it is possible, in some circumstances, for others to copy your works and appropriate your works or expressions as their own.
The U. S. Copyright Office is under the auspices of the Library of Congress. You can visit your registered work of authorship in the Library of Congress, although you may have to search through the millions of other works that are registered, as the Library of Congress has a copy of every registered work. In fact, Twitter recently gave to the Library of Congress a copy of every “Tweet” posted since the start of the Twitter service.