Copyright protection was first introduced in way back in 1790, and it has changed a lot over the years.  Despite substantial revisions today’s copyright laws still protect owners of original works, however, it is now applied to many different types of works  (i.e. websites, source code, etc) than existed hundreds of years ago.  Luckily the creators of the copyright protection drafted it so that an original espression in any “fixed medium” is protected.  This allows the law to evolve as does technology.

Copyright law is sometimes thought of as the little brother in terms of intellectual property law, when in fact it protects, and can be applied to many more items, than trademark or patent law.

So initially, it’s important to make the distinction between copyright, trademark, and patent protections.  A copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”  This means that a copyright is generally for novels, stories, blog posts, other website content, works of art, photographs, songs, etc.  A trademark protects logos, images, slogans, and phrases that are used to distinguish goods, services, companies, and products from one another.  A patent, on the other hand, generally protects an invention or something with a certain amount of utility or innovative design.

An author of a copyrightable work owns the copyright to that work from the moment of the work’s creation.  For recent works the protection lasts for the author’s life plus seventy years, for pen names, works-for-hire, etc. the protection is for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation (whichever happens first).  There are caveats to the publication rule so check with a lawyer.  The protection granted gives the author (owner) the exclusive right to display or perform the work publicly, reproduce the work, create derivative works, or profit from the work.  These rights, or a portion of them, can be licensed to others.  Despite the protections copyright law grants, there are still times when others can use an owners copyrighted work if it fits into the “fair use” exception, which is usually limited to satire, commentary and some other derivative use – think 2 Live Crew’s remake of “Pretty Woman” which didn’t make Roy Orbison too happy.

While creators are not required to use it, the United States Copyright Office does have a formal registration process to help protect authors from copyright infringement.  A copyright application can be filled out online or with a paper application and there is a small filing fee that must be submitted with the application.  Authors of works that will be updated or changed (such as websites) need to note that copyright registration only applies to the content actually sent to the U.S. Copyright Office, so any updates will not have the protections that the filing creates, they will, however, enjoy common law copyright protection.

After the expiration of the copyright protection period, copyrighted works enter the “public domain” meaning the author will no longer have enjoy the sole right to use and exhibit the work.

Authors who don’t wish to register their copyrighted work are encouraged to take other steps to protect their property.  Copyright notifications are not required by law, but are generally considered a good idea.  For any website owner, copyright is something that must be addressed in your site’s Terms of Use.