Copyright Basics for Small Business

Items protected by copyright law include books, magazines, software, advertising copy, newspapers, music, movies, audio recordings, and artwork.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office offers a summary definition of copyright as follows:

Copyright is a form of protection provided to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished. The 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work, to perform the copyrighted work publicly, or to display the copyrighted work publicly.

The copyright protects the form of expression rather than the subject matter of the writing. For example, a description of a machine could be copyrighted, but this would only prevent others from copying the description; it would not prevent others from writing a description of their own or from making and using the machine. Copyrights are registered by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress in the U.S.

If the Material Matters to You, Pay for the Copyright

Items not protected by copyrights include concepts or ideas, titles, names, and brands. For example, our publishing company once considered publishing a book titled Who Am I? First we did a little research to see whether anyone else had previously used this title. We found not one but nine books bearing this title. They were all distinct works by different authors. Although not protected by copyright, names and brands are subject to other protection, particularly trademark protection.

In the United States, copyright protection automatically extends to any appropriate material. This is the case whether you file for a copyright notice or not. However, if it is at all practical, you should spend the small fee to formally register your copyright if the material is of significant value to you. This will increase both the legal protection of your work and the likely value of any rewards you might recover in an infringement of copyright lawsuit.

You should put a copyright notice on all copyrighted materials. This will decrease the likelihood of infringement. The copyright notice should be in a highly visible place on the property and should include the word copyright or the copyright symbol, the first year the work was issued to the public, and the formal name of the holder of the copyright.

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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.

You do not renew copyrights for works in the U.S. created after January 1, 1978. As to works published or registered prior to January 1, 1978, renewal registration is optional after 28 years but does provide certain legal advantages.

More Information

The U.S. Copyright Office has extensive information available on its website, including registration instructions.

Other Countries

Most other countries offer copyright protection that is roughly similar to that offered in the United States. U.S. copyrighted material will usually be protected in other countries. While a few countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, have long ignored or not enforced copyright protection, the global trend has been toward enforcing a strong uniform protection of copyrights worldwide.

Takeaways You Can Use

  • Copyright protects the form of expression, not the subject matter.
  • Copyright protection in the U.S. is automatic, even if you don’t register for it.
  • Copyright registration puts you in a better position should you suffer from infringement.

About Bob Adams

Bob Adams is a Harvard MBA serial entrepreneur. He has started over a dozen businesses including one that he launched with $1500 and sold for $40 million. He has written 17 books and created 52 online courses for entrepreneurs. Bob also founded BusinessTown, the go-to learning platform for starting and running a business.