How Do Copyrights Work?

by Terry Masters

A copyright is an intangible property right that an artist or creator gains in an original work. The copyright represents the law's recognition that the creator should be the one to initially profit from the sale, display, performance or duplication of the work for a standard period of time as a way to encourage creators to continue creating. There is an aspect of copyright law that operates automatically to protect the creator of an original work and other protections that are available under the provisions of the federal Copyright Act.

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A creator can obtain a copyright in an "original work of authorship." The law provides examples of the types of works that can be copyrighted, but the list is not exhaustive: books, articles, dramatic works, motion pictures, videos, technical drawings, musical works and many other types of creative works. A number of things cannot be copyrighted, however, including ideas, concepts, principles, words and phrases. These types of creations are too minimal, basic or ephemeral to qualify as one person's creation.


To qualify for a copyright, a creative work must be original. Originality requires the work to be a unique creative expression and not duplicative or derivative of another person's work; however, the level of creativity does not need to be particularly high. Almost anything will be considered creative if it contains some basic creative spark. A work can also contain both original and unoriginal elements, in which case the copyright will apply only to the original parts.

Fixed Format

A creative work must also be committed to a fixed format to be eligible for copyright protection. Committing the work to a fixed format requires it to be written down, recorded, saved as a file on a computer, or otherwise fixed in such a way that would allow the work to be duplicated. Creative ideas or works not yet fixed in form do not have a copyright.


The creator's copyright in his original work attaches the moment he puts it in a fixed format. At this point he is the owner and has the right to profit from his work, whether or not he does anything else to protect his interests. However, if a creator wants the ability to sue a copyright infringer to stop the infringement and collect damages, he must register his copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration puts the copyright under the auspices of the U.S. Copyright Act and gives the owner the ability to sue for infringement in federal court.


A person who has a copyright that is not registered has no options for enforcement. He can ask an infringer to stop the infringing activity but cannot bring the infringer to court. Federal registration not only opens up an enforcement option, it also removes the need to prove damages. The federal statute sets automatic damages that are applicable whether or not the copyright holder was actually damaged by the infringing activity. The statute also lightens the burden of proving intent. As long as the infringer should have known that the work was copyrighted, he is liable for infringement. If you regularly use a copyright symbol while promoting your creative work, anyone who infringes cannot claim to be innocent of the intent to infringe a work that she copies.