YouTube Copyright Basics
How to Copyright Material (US)
Copyright is a form of protection for original works of authorship, both published and unpublished. It is used by writers, musicians, artists, and others to protect their work from unauthorized commercial use. The first copyright law in the United States was enacted by Congress in 1790.U.S. copyright law, combined with treaties with other countries, protects authors' rights domestically and abroad.
Understanding Copyright Protection
Automatically acquire a copyright of your work the moment you create it.Your work is automatically protected by copyright when it is "fixed in a tangible form," like a writing or drawing on a piece of paper.This means the U.S. copyright laws apply to your work as soon as you produce it, write it, record it, or draw it.
- Remember, it isn't enough just to be the first to voice your idea or invention. If you tell someone your idea, but that person describes it in their own words in a tangible form (e.g., writes it down) first, then that person owns the copyright of that description, not you.
- This "first to record" rule would not apply if you authorized the person to record your words for you, as you remain the "author" of the words that they record.
- Under US law, you do not own the copyright of a recording you make of a live public performance of music unless you obtained the permission of the performers.You could be sued for infringement for making it or sharing it online or anywhere else.
Understand the difference between a copyright, a patent and a trademark.Copyright protects original works of authorship created by you. A patent protects inventions and useful discoveries. Trademark protects distinctive words, phrases, symbols, sounds and designs. Trademarks identify and distinguish the source of the goods (and services) of one party from those of another party.
Know what types of work are protected by copyright.Copyright protects original, tangible work you have created including things like writings, drawings, photographs, books and poems. It also protects:
- movies and soundtracks
- choreography and dramatic works
- songs and sound recordings
- artistic works like paintings and sculptures
- computer software programs
- architecture plans and drawings
Understand what is not protected by copyright.Ideas are not protected by copyright law although the way they are expressed, in writing or otherwise, may be protected. Copyright also does not protect:
- facts or concepts
- domain names
- systems or methods of operation
- names (including band names) or titles
- works created by the US government
- works in the "public domain", i.e., having an expired or void US copyright.
Enjoy the ownership rights of your copyright.Your copyright affords you the exclusive right to make copies of your protected work, sell it, and distribute it. Your copyright also allows you to create adaptations, translations or derivative pieces from your work, perform your work (e.g. like in a play or concert or public reading) and display your work in public.
- Your exclusive rights are subject to limitations such as "fair use", "first sale", certain educational and non-profit uses, backup (archival) copies of computer programs, among other things.
- You may choose to authorize others, via license, to exercise some or all of your exclusive rights either for compensation or as a courtesy.
- You cannot prevent others from making personal copies of sound recordings that they lawfully acquired, provided it is non-commercial use of the recording device.
Understand ownership of "works made for hire".Works may be made for an employer or for a client under an independent contract. The law determines who is the original owner of the copyright, which also determines the copyright duration.
- If a work is created by an employee as part of their work, then the employer is considered "the author" and owns the copyright.
- If you hire an independent contractor, they own the copyright of their creations unless expressly agreed otherwise in a signed writing. This is important if you hire an independent contractor and you want to own and enforce the copyright in the resulting works.
- Complex issues arise when collaborating with others in a jointly authored work.
- Not all types of works qualify as "works for hire" under an independent contract, meaning the resulting ownership may be different from what was intended, absent a clear transfer of ownership.
Know when copyright protection ends.For works created in 1978 or later, a copyright generally lasts for the duration of the last living author's life, plus an additional 70 years. If the work was made for hire, anonymous, or created under a pseudonym, the copyright lasts for the shorter of 95 years from the first publicationor120 years from the creation.
- Works created prior to 1978 may be subject to different duration rules, depending on when they were created, when or if they were published, how they were created, what types of works they are, and whether the copyright was renewed. .You can find an overview of various copyright terms
- There is no longer any need to renew a copyright. Works published in or after 1964 automatically have their maximum copyright term. For works published after 1922 and prior to 1964, the chance to renew expired 28 years later.Those works would have a copyright with duration of 95 years, if renewed, regardless of when the authors died.
- Works of US authors published in the US without proper copyright notice or registration (prior to 1989) and any necessary renewal (published prior to 1964) have no US copyright.
- Since the copyright to your creation will extend beyond your life, you should consider to whom you would like to leave the rights to your work when you die.Keep your copyrighted work in mind when writing a will or creating an estate plan.
- You may also transfer ownership of your US copyrights to others by a written and signed document, but it will have the same duration as before transfer regardless of who owns it.Transfers may be recorded in the Copyright Office.
- Sound recordings first published in the USA prior to 1972 have no US federal copyright, but may be protected against unauthorized duplication under various state laws until 2067.
- Different rules for duration may apply to works first published in a foreign country.
Registering a Copyright
Consider the reasons to register your copyright.If you so wish, you can register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. You might choose to register your copyright for several reasons:
- A registered copyright is a matter of public record.
- Registered copyright holders receive a certificate of registration from the U.S. Copyright Office.
- You must register your copyright before you bring a lawsuit related to infringement of your work.
- Works with timely registration may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees if you win a lawsuit to protect your rights.
- If you register your work within five years of the first publication of the work, the registration is consideredprima facieevidence, which puts the burden on the other party to prove that they had a copyright to the original work before you did.
Register your copyright online.The process of registering your copyright online is easy. Visit the U.S. Copyright Office's online registration site, . You will need to register an account with the office to start your application.
- A comprehensive tutorial is available
- You will need to create a digital version of your work and upload it with the application. You can also request a shipping label so that you can mail your work to the office, instead.
- Pay the filing fee online and submit your application. Refer to the to find the current filing fee for filing a copyright and write a check for the filing fee.
Register your copyright by mail.You can choose to register by mail instead by visiting the . Select the appropriate form for filing. For example, if you are registering a novel, you select the Literary Form (Form TX), if you are registering a music or voice recording, you select the Sound Recording Form (Form SR).
- Print out the form and complete it. Refer to the form for guidance as to the number of copies of your work you need to include with your package and the mailing address.
- Make a copy or copies of your copyrighted work.
- Refer to the to find the current filing fee for filing a copyright and write a check for the filing fee.
- Package your application, check and copyrighted work together in one package. If you are mailing items like CDs, DVDs or other fragile materials, it is best to place them in a box with sufficient packaging so they do not get damaged.
Receive your certificate of registration by mail.After you have filed your application, whether by mail or online, it will be examined and usually approved. If approved, you will receive a certificate of registration from the U.S. Copyright Office. This certificate is proof that your work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
- If your application is rejected, you will be notified of the reason and given a chance to file an appeal. One basis for denial is for material that does not qualify for copyright.
Protecting Your Copyright
Add a notice to your copyrighted work.While a copyright notice is not required to protect your copyright, it is a good idea to include one for several reasons. It may deter a would-be infringer from misusing your work.A notice is also helpful if you have to sue an infringer for misusing your work. The infringer cannot argue that he or she did not know your work was copyrighted if your work bears a copyright notice. A copyright notice may also make it easier to collect damages in any potential infringement lawsuit.
- A copyright notice should contain: the word “copyright" or a “c” in a circle (©) as well as the date of first publication and the name of the owner of the copyright.
Send a cease-and-desist letter.If some is copying your copyrighted work, or otherwise violating your exclusive rights (e.g., public performance for gain, distribution of copies or derivative works) send a cease and desist letter before taking further legal action. Whether you send the letter yourself or hire an attorney, your letter should state that you own the copyright and instruct the unauthorized copier to cease and desist all copyright infringement. You should also demand written confirmation that the copier acknowledges your letter and intends to stop infringing on your copyright.
- You can find a sample cease-and-desist letter
File a lawsuit.If someone is copying your work without permission and refuses to stop even after you have notified them of your copyright, you can file a lawsuit to protect your rights. Find an attorney who specializes in copyright law to assist you with your lawsuit.
- Register your copyright. You cannot sue in US federal court unless you have filed for a US copyright registration.
- Ask friends and associates for attorney referrals. You can also utilize referral services through your local or county bar association. Contact your local bar association and ask they operate a referral service.
- Where someone is unlawfully profiting from their infringement of your rights, or is depriving you of substantial income, or pre-releases a commercial work online, you may also file a criminal complaint.
QuestionIf I mail my idea in the form of a document to myself and never open it when it arrives, is it protected by copyright laws?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerNo, that is a myth. Any of your writing is already copyrighted the moment it is recorded, whether it is on paper or on a computer hard drive. Mailing it is wasteful and unnecessary.Thanks!
QuestionCan I copyright food?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerCopyright laws do not extend to basic recipes that just list ingredients, but they can be applied to more detailed explanations and illustrations of food.Thanks!
QuestionCan I copyright a title of a book? The content writing is still in progress?Top AnswererNo. US copyright laws do not provide copyright protection for book titles. Some book titles may benefit from trademark laws, but generally only if used in a series.Thanks!
QuestionCan hackers use the copyrights illegally to make copies of it?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerI assume you are referring to the piracy of copyrighted information. Yes and no. Yes, they can retrieve digital files if they have great enough experience in hacking and development. However, if your copyright is registered with the government, if they are caught, they can be taken to court.Thanks!
QuestionCan I copyright home movies that are intended to be used as a short film?Top AnswererYes. If you are the legal author of such a movie, you automatically own the copyright and may optionally register it, if you're planning to sue someone.Thanks!
QuestionI inherited fine art. As I am not the artist (deceased and the estate is settled), should I copyright, patent, or trademark to sell prints of the paintings? I want to keep the originals.Top AnswererThe copyright of fine art typically belongs to the artist, unless the rights were transferred in a written document signed by the author. Ownership of the art is separate from ownership of the copyright. Copyright of older works also may have expired, assuming it had any to begin with. You would need to research the artist and the works (perhaps in the US Copyright Office) to determine what (if any) rights remain and who might own them.Thanks!
QuestionI wrote some insurance guidelines and marketing materials for an insurance company to use. They will put my name on it. How can I get it copyrighted for free, and can I charge them for the material?Top AnswererWhether you can charge them would be a question for your contract attorney. If you were the author and didn't have a written contract as "work made for hire," then you already own the copyright, for free, as a matter of US laws. If you want to enforce it in court, you will need to register your ownership in the US Copyright Office, assuming you're a US citizen or resident.Thanks!
QuestionCan several photos or pieces of art on a disk be submitted and copyrighted all at once?Top AnswererYes, under specific circumstances related to authorship and age of the works, you may register more than one work in the same application. You don't "get copyright" from the US Copyright Office; copyright already exists when the work is first created. You apply to the Copyright Office for a certificate of registration when you want to sue someone in a US federal court.Thanks!
QuestionIf I copyright a webcomic (for example), would I have to create a new copyright every time I create a new page, or would the copyright "blanket" every page?Top AnswererCopyright automatically covers your original works of creative authorship the moment you create them in a tangible form (on paper, in permanent computer memory, etc). Registration of such works is completely optional, but there are specific guidelines for registering "serial" works.Thanks!
QuestionCan I just tell people it's a copyrighted video if it hasn't been registered?Top AnswererUnless the video contains materials that are not subject to copyright (e.g., works in the public domain or works of the US government), then it is "really copyrighted" from the moment it was recorded. Registration of copyright is not a condition for ownership of the copyright in most countries. You can put on a copyright notice, e.g., © 2019 Yourname, if you like.Thanks!
How do I protect my logo?
Can legal resources such as statutes, cases, etc. be copyrighted?
Is there a different process for academic materials such as lectures, presentations, or assessments/rubrics?
So do I copyright every image for clothing line or do I trademark it?
To copyright material, go online to the U.S. Copyright Office registration system, called eCO, to register an account. Then, complete an application and either upload a digital version of your work or request a shipping label so you can mail it in. Be sure to pay the specified filing fee when you submit your application. Alternatively, you can download the appropriate form from the U.S. Copyright Office website, getting Form TX for literary works or Form SR for sound recordings, for example. Complete the form, attach your work and the filing fee, and mail it in.
- Don't rely on the "poor man's copyright." There is a long-standing myth in the music industry that the practice of recording a song, placing it in an envelope, and mailing it to yourself guarantees a copyright, with the post date on the stamp serving as proof of the date of origin of the song. There is no provision in the law recognizing this practice, and it is no substitute for proper registration.
- Other reasons a copyright registration might be rejected include the use of the improper form, irregularities in how you claim ownership of copyright in works you didn't actually create or that are "works for hire" or compilations, that it lacks "originality" or "creativity" necessary for copyright, or is otherwise disqualified.
- Registration of a multi-media web page, let alone an entire site, can be very complicated because there may be multiple authors of different parts, different types of works, compilations, supplemental works, derivative works, licensed works, public domain issues, and distinctions between creative parts and generic parts. Professional counsel would be advisable when considering such a costly project.
- If you are seeking legal advice, you should consult a lawyer.
- The information provided above constitutes general information related to the law. It doesnotconstitute legal advice and the provider of this information is not a law firm.
Sources and Citations
- 17 USC Chapter 11
- 17 USC § 105
- 17 USC §§ 107 to 122.
- Audio Home Recording Act of 1992, 17 USC § 1008.
- 17 USC § 201.
- 17 USC § 101, definition of "work made for hire", listing nine types of works.
- 17 USC § 204
- 17 USC § 411.
- 17 USC § 506.
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