Copyright is a concept covered by intellectual property law.  Basically, a copyright grants exclusive rights to own and/or use certain artistic works.  These may include songs, literary plays, writings, motion pictures, sound recordings, architectural work, visual representations, certain types of electronic designs, and other works.

Copyright law is very similar to trademark law, which covers logos and company brand names, as well as patent law, which protects inventions.  The item or work to be copyrighted should be an original, and not a reproduction or copy of property that is already copyrighted.

A copyright can be obtained by filing with the U.S. Copyright Office.  Only works that meet certain minimum qualifications can be registered as copyrighted.  The requirements will vary depending on the type of work; some works may be subject to an expiration date (for example, 50 or 70 years after its creation).

What Types of Rights Does a Valid Copyright Grant?

Obtaining a copyright for a creative work can grant the holder a range of different legal rights.  Some of these will include:

  • Rights to reproduce the work for sale
  • Distribution rights
  • Exclusive rights to perform the work in public for monetary profit
  • Rights to display the work (such as in a museum or fair)
  • Licensing rights
  • Rights to produce/license other works that are “derived” from the copyrighted material

Thus, it is generally beneficial for the creator of a work to obtain copyright protection for their work.  This will allow them to fully maximize the amount of monetary profit they can gain should they decide to market their work.

Note that some of these rights can be limited in nature.  For example, consumers are generally allowed “fair use” of the work, which usually refers to non-economic use of the work, as in a literary review.  Also, the copyright holders usually only entitle them to sell the product once; once the product is sold, they generally lose rights to distribution, resale, etc.  This is known as the “first sale doctrine”.

What is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement occurs when a person or company uses copyrighted material for monetary gain in a way that violates the copyright holder’s rights.  For instance, suppose that a private theater tries to screen a particular movie without first obtaining permission from the copyright holder.  This may be considered a violation, especially if the theater is gaining profit from the screening.

One main issue with copyright infringement cases occurs when one person creates a work that is very similar to work that is already copyrighted.  This commonly occurs in the music industry, when one artist makes a song that sounds like one in existence.  In such cases, the courts need to perform a legal analysis that is very complicated, in which they attempt to trace whether the second artist “copied” the first.

Here, terms such as ‘substantially similar”, or “deceptive in nature” come into play; these generally require the assistance of a copyright lawyer in order to interpret them.  Also, some copyright laws are continually changing, especially with the advances in technology that create different mediums of artistic expression.

A party that is found liable for copyright infringement may have to reimburse the copyright holder for monetary losses caused by the infringement.  The violating party may also be subject to criminal consequences, as copyrights are federally protected as well.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With Copyright Issues?

Generally speaking, the assistance of a qualified copyright lawyer is necessary when dealing with copyright issues.  Whether you’re applying for a copyright, or filing a claim for copyright infringement, it is very likely that you will run up against some fairly complicated legal concepts.  Thus, you may wish to hire an experienced lawyer in your area who can help you with the various copyright laws and represent you during any court hearings.