Last week we began our discussion of intellectual property with a look at patents, which provide inventors or originators of ideas with a monopoly on production and sales of that idea. This week we’ll take a look at a similar but slightly different area of intellectual property law: copyrights, which protect creators of original works of art, generally. Just as with patents, copyrights enable creators to hold a monopoly on the production, sale, performance and publication of their work.
A third category of IP law–namely “trademarks”–also includes some relevant tools for protecting creative works, but in order to meet the standards for trademark protection, a work needs to be represented in the marketplace by a mark (or logo), word or sentence. A copyright, however, protects the work itself (though only in the specific form the work has taken; it is not a blanket protection over the idea). Say, for example, that a screenwriter completes his or her script and wants to make sure that it can be shopped around to filmmakers, freely without the threat of the story, central idea or any elements of the work being stolen and used by someone else. He or she wouldn’t have to worry, however: under the law, a copyright is secured as soon as the work exists in a so-called “fixable” form; i.e., from the first time a copy of the complete screenplay was made.
These subtle variations in copyright law are often misunderstood. For instance, because copyright disputes often arise out of when a particular work was first completed (an “I thought of it first” type of argument), there have been various methods floated for fixing a work in time by some official means. For instance, you may have heard of the so-called “poor man’s copyright,” a system whereby creators mail themselves unopened copies of their work, dated officially by the postal service and thus considered proof of a work having been completed by a particular date. However, this is an imperfect solution as copies of work can still be placed inside pre-mailed envelopes (or, at the very least, that is a plausible argument to bring up in court proceedings).
Cases like this show why there are definite benefits to registering a copyright officially, with the United States Copyright Office. This registration can be done anytime during the life of the copyright, meaning that although the copyright is already in place (simply because it was fixed in a completed form, as discussed above), the act of registering it provides an official documentation and paper trail that allows the creator to rest easy. With an officially-registered copyright, the rights of monopoly extend throughout all legal channels in the United States–for example, a record of a copyright will prevent the importation of foreign knock-offs of a work, because the U.S. Customs Office will be able to look up that a copyright has been logged. Basically, it creates a paper trail.
With all this in mind, it’s easy to understand why the ins and outs of copyright law can seem confusing to many, especially in comparison with patent and trademark law. But despite the specificity and occasionally confusing “legalese” that courts and law professionals use to deal with these issues, the central issue is really quite simple: as a creator, you have the right to use your creation however you see fit. No one else can take your work away from you. It is a fundamental, and quite fortunate, aspect of U.S. law, and one we should all be grateful for!