Copyrights: Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Copyright?

A copyright grants the creator of an original work in a fixed tangible medium of expression exclusive rights to the work’s distribution, generally for a limited time.

What Kind of Works Does a Copyright Protect?

The original works protected include:

  • literary works
  • musical works, including any accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

What is Not Protected by Copyright?

These categories of work are generally not eligible for federal copyright registration:

  • works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression, i.e. choreographic works that have not been recorded or other performances that were not recorded
  • titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents
  • ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration
  • works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship, i.e. standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures, rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources

Who Can Claim Copyright?

Only the author who created the work can rightfully claim copyright.

Does My Work Have to be Published to be Protected?

No. Publication is not a requirement.

Do I Have to Register My Work With the United States Copyright Office to Obtain Copyright Protection?

No. Copyright protection begins as soon as the work is fixed in a tangible medium.

How do I give Notice That My Work is Protected by Copyright?

For visually perceptible copies of copyrighted work, the following three things should be included:

  • the symbol ©, or “copyright,” or the abbreviation, “copr.”; and
  • the year of first publication of the work. If the work is a compilation of previously published work, use the year date of first publication of the compilation or derivative work; and
  • the name of the owner of the copyright. You can also use an abbreviation as long as the abbreviation can be recognized and attributable to the author.

An example would be, “John Doe © 2015.”

What are the Advantages of Registering My Work with the United States Copyright Office?

Although it is not a prerequisite for protection, federal copyright registration does have its advantages, such as the following:

  • It establishes a public record of the copyright.
  • If you want to file an infringement suit against someone infringing on your copyright, you must register your copyright first.
  • If registration is done within five years of the work’s publication, it establishes prima facie evidence in court of the validity of the copyright and the facts stated in the certificate.
  • If registration is made within three months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney’s fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions. Otherwise, only an award of actual damages and profits is available to the copyright owner.
  • It allows the owner of the copyright to also record it with the U.S. Customs Service for protection against the importation of infringing copies.

How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?

Generally, works created after 1978 are protected throughout the author’s life plus an additional 70 years after the author’s death. If there is more than one author, then it lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author’s death.

If it is “work for hire” or an anonymous work, then the term of protection is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

Can I Transfer My Copyright Ownership?

Copyright transfers can be done; however, all transfers must be in writing and signed by the author or the author’s agent.

What is a “Poor Man’s Copyright?”

It is the notion that you can register your copyright by mailing it to yourself and using the date mailed as a source date to the work. There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any type of protection for a “poor man’s copyright.”

Can Foreigners Register Work with the United States Copyright Office?

 Yes. Any work that is protected by U.S. copyright law can be registered and includes works of foreign origin. In other words, all unpublished works are protected in the United States regardless of the author’s nationality.

How Can I Register My work?

You can register your work either by mail or online via the United States Copyright office. You must fill out the required forms, pay the required fees, and then either upload or mail in a copy of your work. The copy will not be returned.

What Are the Required Fees?

If you file online through the Copyright Office (eCO), there are lower filing fees and can be made on a credit card:

  • $35.00 for a single author who is also the sole claimant in a single work that is not made for hire
  • $55.00 for all other online filings

If you elect to use a paper application, the fee is $85 payable by check or money order.

If I Mail in My Submission, Do I Have to Send it Certified Mail?

Many people do send their submission by certified mail, but it is not required.

Can I Use a “Pen Name” on the Registration Form?

There is no legal requirement that one use their legal or given name on the application form when registering work.

Is the Information I Put Down on My Registration Form Public?

Yes. Copyright registration is a public document.

Can a Minor Register a Copyright?

Yes. However, other state laws may impact a minor’s copyright.

Does Copyright Law Protect Domain Names?

No. Domain names are not available for copyright protection.

How Long Does it Take for the Registration Process to be Complete?

The copyright office is fairly vague on this and states it “varies.” However, generally, it appears to take up to 8 months.


This article was written by Maureen A. Carlson.

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