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How Do I Get a Copyright in the United States?

As long as your work is an original creation, and is, in fact, your work, it is copyrighted. In the United States, Copyright protection is automatically conferred on “Original Works of Authorship” fixed in a “Tangible Medium.”

  • For Photographers: This means that as soon as you snap your picture, and the camera creates the negative, or saves the digital version, you have a valid copyright. This is not true, of course, if you have copied the photo from someone else’s work.
  • For Writers: This means that as soon as you have committed your words to paper (or to a .doc, .pdf, or website), you can claim copyright protection. Again, this is only true if you haven’t plagiarized or copied the work from someone else.
  • For Musicians: This means that as soon as you have recorded your work, or written your composition on paper, it is protected.

You should also consider registering your copyright with the copyright office. Without registration, the amount you can recover for an infringement will be limited to actual damages. You will not be entitled to statutory damages – the big money in copyright suits – or attorney’s fees to cover the costs of litigating.

It is important to know that ideas themselves are not copyrightable. For example, if a photographer takes a shot of a man fishing off bridge in your home town, you are not banned from taking pictures of a man fishing off a bridge. Unless your expression of the idea is very very similar (e.g. individual elements such as subject placement, lighting, angle focus, etc. are the same), your photo will also qualify for copyright protection. In much the same way, if a writer tells a story about a spider who spins messages about a pig in its web, you are not prohibited from writing a similar story – only from copying the original.

There is no need to include the © symbol on your finished work. A notice that includes the © symbol, the date, and your name (as the author), can limit a potential infringers right to claim that they “just didn’t know” the work was protected.

Publication is no longer a prerequisite to protection. Publication does, however, have benefits including effects on exclusive rights, the duration of the copyright, and differing registration requirements.

There is no such thing as international copyright, but because of treaties like the Berne Convention, a United States copyright will be honored in much of the world.

Back to the #Copyright overview.

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