Copyright is the scheme of legal protection for people who develop original creative works including art, literature, film, architecture and software. Copyright attaches the moment an original creative work is fixed into a tangible medium, like a sketch or a digital file. Enforcement of copyright against infringement by others is primarily up to copyright holders, who must carefully protect their copyrighted works through notices, registration and, if necessary, civil lawsuits.
A copyright holder has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform and display original work and use derivative works, such as in sequels or product merchandising. Anyone who engages in any use of the work without the copyright holder's permission is usually committing a copyright infringement. A few narrow instances in which use of a copyrighted work without the copyright holder's permission may not constitute infringement include a legitimate fair use, such as quoting a small portion of a work for purposes of literary or academic criticism. Purchasing a compulsory license to record a cover song is another means of using a copyrighted work without constituting infringement.
Notice and Registration
Placing a copyright notice on your work is no longer required by law, but it still makes good common sense. The best way to prevent copyright infringement is to make sure that anyone viewing your work knows it is copyright protected and can readily identify the copyright holder. The clearest, traditional means of placing the world on notice of your copyright is to mark your copyrighted works with the letter C inside a circle, followed by the year of first publication of the work and the name of the copyright holder. Although registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office is not mandatory, doing so helps to notify potential infringers of your rights as a copyright holder. Registered copyrights are listed in a searchable national database, which can be used both to determine if something is protected by copyright and to find the copyright holder in order to buy a license or negotiate terms for lawful use.
Cease and Desist
The first step in preventing copyright infringement is to ask the person who is using your protected work to stop doing so. Send the infringer a cease and desist letter to let that person know you are the copyright holder; you intend to protect your copyright; you are aware of the use of your copyrighted work; and you do not approve of that use. You can include a request for compensation in the cease and desist letter. Once you send the cease and desist letter, you can often negotiate an amicable agreement for use of the copyrighted work.
If you cannot reach an amicable settlement with someone who wants to use your copyrighted work, you may have to bring a copyright enforcement lawsuit in federal court. To do so, you must register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration permits the copyright holder to seek additional damages, as well as attorney's fees and costs of bringing the copyright enforcement suit. The advantages of registration make it more effective to protect your copyright from infringement with enforcement litigation, if necessary.