Copyright Law in a Nutshell
All too often, photographers and other artists fail to protect or enforce their copyright rights because they don’t know how much protecting their rights will do for their reputation and bottom line. It’s no secret that copyright infringement is rampant in the digital space. This is why it’s more important than ever for photographers, artists, and other content creators to understand the value of filing their works with the U.S. Copyright Office and enforcing their rights through copyright litigation when practicable.
Background on U.S. Copyright Law
Copyright protection extends to “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as photographs, fine art, poetry, novels, fabric patterns, architecture, software, musical compositions, sound recordings, plays, movies, etc. Put simply, as soon as you fix your work in a tangible medium of expression (i.e. take a photo, create a painting, etc.), you automatically own the copyright to the work, which means that you are the “author” of that work. The only exception to this rule is if you are an employee or you signed a work-for-hire agreement for a specific project. In those situations, you would not be the copyright holder. However, if neither of those situations apply to you, then you are the copyright holder to all of the works you create.
As the copyright holder, you have the exclusive right to do the following:
- Reproduce the work;
- Prepare derivative works based on the original work;
- Distribute copies of the work to the public, by sale or otherwise;
- Perform/display the work publicly; and
- License or assign your rights in the work to others.
Benefits to Registering Your Work with the U.S. Copyright Office
Although you own a copyright upon creation, there is an immense benefit to registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. Federal registration imparts many rights, such as the right to sue for copyright infringement and the potential to collect attorneys’ fees and statutory damages (up to $150,000 per willful infringement of each work) if you prevail in a copyright infringement lawsuit. To be eligible for enhanced damages and attorneys’ fees, you must register your work within 3 months of the first date of publication or before the infringer first copied your work.
The bottom line is that there are many benefits to understanding your rights as a copyright holder and taking the steps to protect your rights through filing for federal copyright protection with the U.S. Copyright Office. Although copyright infringement is pervasive, artists and brand owners who take the enforcement of their rights seriously are rewarded with tighter brand control and the potential to recover significant monetary damages in copyright infringement lawsuits.