Copyright law creates ownership rights for works of authorship, including literature and visual arts. In the United States, copyright law is governed by federal law and is enforced by federal courts.
Basic Copyright Protection
Basic copyright protection attaches to your original work as soon as you fix it in a "tangible medium." For example, it is fixed in a tangible medium if you actually write a book or paint a painting. Publication is not required. Copyright law prevents anyone but the creator and those permitted by the creator from displaying, performing, reproducing, distributing or selling a work. It also prevents others from preparing derivative works such as using literary characters created by another writer in an otherwise original novel. With basic copyright protection, you can win damages for copyright infringement if you can prove that you suffered damages.
You may register your copyright online on the website of the U.S. copyright office for a small fee, either on your own or through an online document preparation website. Registration requires that you upload a digital copy of the work and provide certain information about yourself and the work. Once your work is registered, you may sue for infringement in federal court. You may ask for statutory damages of up to $150,000 per infringement, as long as you registered the work before the infringement occurred or within three months of publishing it. With registration, it is not necessary to prove damages.
The laws on copyright duration are complex and depend on many factors, such as when the work was created and who created it. The copyright on a work created by a single individual generally endures until 70 years after he dies. If an author writes a book in 2008, for example, sells the copyright to a publishing company in 2010 and dies in 2029, the work will be protected until 2099. This is true even though he sold the copyright to a publishing company before he died. In the case of a work for hire, a copyright endures until the earlier of 120 years after its creation and 95 years after its first publication.
There are three major exceptions to copyright law. The work for hire exception allows you to agree to transfer the copyright of a work you create to your employer as soon as it is created. The first sale exception allows anyone to sell a second-hand copy of your work without your permission. The fair use exception allows anyone to use a limited portion of your work without your permission -- two sentences from your novel, for example, or a few notes from a song your wrote -- as long as the use is for a socially beneficial purpose.
Two major international copyright treaties exist: the Berne Convention and the Universal Copyright Convention. Most of the world's nations have signed the Berne Convention treaty. Under the Berne Convention, any work created by a U.S. citizen or in the United States is entitled to copyright protection in any Berne Convention nation. International protection under the Universal Copyright Convention is triggered when you affix a copyright notice to your work in the following form: "© (C in a circle), the year of first publication, and the name of the copyright owner."
U.S. copyright law recognizes certain "moral rights" that endure even after a copyright expires. These include the right to be identified as the author of the work and the right to prevent the preparation of derivative works. In 1990, Congress limited moral rights for some types of visual art.