Not all works are entitled to copyright protection. U.S. copyright law grants copyrights to literary, musical and dramatic works, visual art, sound recordings, and architectural works. Even if a work falls within these broad categories, a copyright in the work is valid only if the work is at least minimally creative.
U.S. copyright law allows the work’s creator, or author, to duplicate, display, distribute or perform her work exclusively for a term of years. Authors may also license others to exercise these rights on their behalf. If someone else attempts to use a copyrighted work without license or permission from the author, the author may sue that individual for infringement in federal court. While a registered copyright is considered unambiguous proof of validity, an alleged infringer may challenge the copyright’s validity by arguing the author’s work does not meet the minimum standard of creativity.
The Copyright Office does not analyze the validity of a copyright claim prior to issuing a copyright certificate. If the copyright holder later sues someone for infringement, the alleged infringer can argue the copyright is not valid in the first instance. Frivolous copyrights are those that claim copyright protection for works that display no creativity at all on the part of the author. Registration merely places the burden on the defendant to prove the work is not sufficiently creative to merit copyright protection.
Names and Titles
Names, titles, lists and short phrases are not entitled to copyright protection, even if they are distinctive and display a modicum of creativity. Copyright law requires a minimum amount of authorship for copyright protection to exist, and short phrases and combinations of words do not meet this requirement. However, trademarks may provide intellectual property protection for those categories. Blank forms are also not copyrightable under the same reasoning. Copyright only protects the original expression of the author, not the author’s labeling or titling of that expression.
Ideas, Methods and Systems
Ideas, methods, systems, processes, and discoveries or inventions are not entitled to copyright protection, as stated in Section 102 of the U.S. Copyright Act. Methods and inventions are more properly the subject of patent law. An author may write a book describing a particular method, and that book would be protected by copyright. While that copyright would prevent others from copying the author’s words directly, it would not prevent anyone else from using or adapting the method described.
Compilations of facts or public domain works are eligible for copyright protection, provided the selection and arrangement of the pre-existing works is sufficiently creative. A routine arrangement, such as alphabetical or chronological order, does not show enough creativity to render the compilation copyrightable. For example, there is creativity present in the selection and arrangement of “The 18 Most Frightening Ghost Stories of the 18th Century." In contrast, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” would not have a valid compilation copyright, as there is no creativity in simply publishing all of an author’s work.