What is Copyright Law?

Copyright law is the area of law that protects the right of authors, artists and creators to profit from their work. The purpose of copyright law is to encourage people to make creative works. Lawmakers believe that people are more likely to invest the time and effort to make creative, artistic works if they know they’re going to have the exclusive right to profit from those works.

What’s protected under copyright law

Copyright laws protect the rights of the people who create artistic works to be the ones to profit from those works. Copyright law protects a variety of types of creative works including:

  • Books
  • Written papers and poems
  • Music
  • Singing
  • Movies
  • Video recordings
  • Theater and drama
  • Art
  • Sculpture
  • Architecture
  • Sound
  • Derivative works of any of these things

Some things are not protected by copyright law. Simple names, pseudonyms, titles, slogans, short advertising sayings and lists of ingredients are not subject to copyright. In addition, copyright and patents are two different things. Copyrights protect creative works. Patents protect discoveries and technologies.

How do you get a copyright?

In the United States, copyright is automatic. The person who produces a creative work is the one who has the right to profit from it. You don’t have to formally register a copyright with the United States Copyright Office in order to have a copyright. However, there are reasons that you might want to go through the process to register your copyright. When you register your copyright, you have prima facie evidence that your copyright exists. In the event of a violation, you can also ask for statutory damages and attorney fees that aren’t available to you if you don’t register your copyright.

To have a copyright, you must reduce your work to a tangible form. It’s not enough to have an idea. It’s also not enough to tell someone about it. To have a copyright, you need to record your work in a way that someone else can view it or hear it.

What about the copyright symbol?

You might assume that you have to place a copyright symbol (© ) on your work in order to have a valid copyright. That used to be the law in the United States, but it isn’t the law today. The United States signed onto an international treaty. That treaty makes a copyright automatic in the United States without having to place a symbol on your work.

What does a copyright do?

A copyright protects the owner’s right to profit from their work. They might profit by making copies of their work and selling it. For example, a painter might make a print of their work and sell it. An artist might allow people to download an unlimited number of mp3s for a price.

Copyright owners may import and export their work. They may adapt their work to create derivative works. They may choose to display their work in public, and they have the right to broadcast their work by radio or video. Finally, a copyright owner has the authority to sell the rights to their work.

Copyright registration and the United States Copyright Office

The federal government oversees copyright use through the United States Copyright Office. The office doesn’t handle dispute resolution or adjudication. Instead, they’re the clearing house for keeping copies of registered copyrights.

Available remedies

Penalties for a copyright violation might include monetary payments for a decrease in profits. It might also include getting injunctive relief that prevents the behavior from continuing. In some cases, a person who violates copyright might also have to turn over things they use to produce the unlawful copies such as copying machines or other equipment.

Practicing copyright law

When you practice copyright law, you’ll likely work for individuals or corporations in a variety of functions. First, you might help an artist register their copyright. Most copyright law involves helping clients enforce their copyright or defend against allegations of copyright violation.

Copyright law is in federal court

Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over copyright law. If you practice exclusively copyright law, you won’t see a state courtroom unless you spend time helping clients with ancillary business issues that are unrelated to copyright law. Instead, you can expect to spend your time in federal courtrooms bringing and defending allegations of copyright violations.

Copyright law is both criminal and civil

Copyright lawyers might defend clients who are facing allegations of both criminal and civil violations. Federal prosecutors can prosecute willful copyright violations. They have prosecutorial discretion. That means that they can choose whether or not to bring a criminal action for an alleged copyright violation. If they don’t choose to bring a criminal prosecution, the person holding the copyright can still initiate their own civil action.

National and international practice

In addition to practice in federal courts, copyright lawyers might work all over the world. Copyright violations occur everywhere. Although most states around the world are parties to the World Trade Organization TRIPS Agreement of 1995 that provides for copyright protections, different countries have different local court procedures for bringing enforcement actions. In addition, attitudes towards copyright protections might vary throughout the world, and copyright lawyers must prepare for these challenges as they advocate for their clients.

Litigation practice

Copyright lawyers are litigators. They spend a great deal of their time preparing lawsuits and going to court to pursue them. From drafting legal documents to preparing discovery, copyright lawyers must be skilled on all facets of litigation. They should be comfortable advocating in court and ready to try cases as necessary.

Common issues in copyright enforcement

While practicing copyright law, attorneys might encounter any number of common issues:

  • Employer and employee conflicts – when an employee creates the work, disputes can arise as to ownership
  • Joint authorship – more than one person might create a work and wish to control it
  • Disputes over whether a work is eligible for copyright protection
  • Issues of whether a new work falls under the Fair Use Doctrine
  • Questions of if a work is still under copyright
  • Debate over whether a work is original enough to claim a copyright
  • Registration questions and assistance
  • Enforcement actions for copyright violations
  • Challenges proving lost sales and other damages because of violations

Copyright laws and emerging technologies

Lawyers who practice copyright law must think about how emerging technology interacts with copyright laws. With the technology available today, it’s easier than ever to record a work. It’s also easier than ever to violate copyright. Today’s copyright lawyers must develop new ways to detect and enforce copyright violations. Some say that widespread availability of music might help musicians expand their brand and increase sales. Others say that copyright violations set a dangerous precedent if they’re not enforced. Copyright attorneys might also have to help their clients defend against abuse of copyright protections.

The history of copyright laws in the United States

Copyright law comes from as far back as the United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8. This part of the constitution says that the constitution promotes the development of science and the arts by allowing authors and inventors to keep the exclusive rights to their work. This provision of the constitution is the result of a significant amount of debate of the founding fathers.

A lot of U.S. copyright law comes from the Copyright Act of 1976. The United States is also a signatory and a major proponent of the World Trade Organization TRIPS Agreement. Today, the Copyright Act of 1976, the TRIPS Agreement and case law controls copyright procedures in the United States.

Why Become a Copyright lawyer?

Copyright lawyers are trial lawyers. They’re also lawyers who draft letters and legal filings. Many copyright lawyers combine their practice with patent law and other intellectual property issues.

Copyright lawyers might work with only a few other lawyers or as part of a large firm. A few attorneys might work for the United States Copyright Office, but most copyright attorneys are private practitioners. If you enjoy litigation and federal courts, copyright law may be a good fit for you.