Copyright protects “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, pictorial, architectural, and audiovisual works. Copyright law in the United States arises under the Copyright Act of 1976, a federal statute. To be eligible for copyright protection, a work must be “original” (i.e., minimally creative) and “fixed” in a tangible medium of expression. Both published and unpublished works are protected.
The owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to do the following:
- To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords.
- To prepare derivative works based upon the work.
- To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.
- To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works.
- To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.
- In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.
Anyone who violates any of these exclusive rights is liable for copyright infringement, unless a limitation applies—for example, the “fair use” defense or a compulsory license.
Under the Copyright Act, “works of authorship” include the following:
- Literary works (includes computer software)
- Musical works
- Dramatic works
- Pantomimes and choreographic works
- Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
- Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
- Sound recordings
- Architectural works
Registration is voluntary, and copyright exists from the moment a work is created. If you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work, however, registration is a necessary antecedent to litigation.