A copyright is a form of intellectual property given to an individual or company responsible for creating a tangible work which conveys an idea. A copyright can be given to a motion picture, photograph, musical recording, book, drawing, or any other known tangible medium. An idea cannot be copyrighted until after it has been translated into one of these forms of conveyance.
Ownership of a copyright is automatically given to the author of the work the minute it is completed. Copyright ownership can be granted to one individual, several contributors to a work in a joint ownership, or to a company for which an individual works.
If an individual creates a work for a company, the company is entitled to copyright ownership in a “work for hire” copyright claim. In any case, the copyright ownership grants the holder the ability to use, sell, recreate, license, and transfer a copyrighted work.
Copyrights do not last forever, however. Although the creator of a work will always have exclusive rights to his or her works, the copyright only lasts a certain amount of time after their death. As a result, if a copyright is passed down through a will, the person receiving the copyright is allowed to use the work for only a given amount of time before it becomes public domain. Once a work is public domain, anybody can use, recreate, or sell it without legal repercussions.
Even though a person is entitled to a copyright as soon as a work is completed, it is beneficial to have that work registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, especially if legal matters arise from the work. Once registered for a small fee, the U.S. Copyright Office will have no doubt who owns a certain work and if a person chooses to infringe on that copyright, there will be no question who is guilty in the case.
As an owner of a copyright, an individual has the ability to place the rights to use a work in the hands of another individual. This is the process of licensing a copyright. The copyright owner, under a contract, allows the individual to recreate, sell, or use the work for their own benefit under certain restrictions and time limits as outlined in the contract. Once the contract for licensing expires, the licensee no longer has the right to use the work.
Transferring a copyright involves transferring ownership of the copyright from the original owner to another. Since a copyright is handled as a form of personal property, it is passed from one individual to another depending on the laws of the State in which it occurs.
Copyright ownership can also be transferred through the will of an author. Physically transferring a copyrighted piece of work from one person to another does not give that person the actual copyright itself. Ownership transfer must be done through the U.S. Copyright Office.
The length of time in which exclusive rights to a work lasts has been a long debated issue. As a result, the rules concerning the length of a copyright have changed several times in the 20th Century. Originally, the rules for copyrights were established in 1909, giving copyright holders exclusive rights to their work for 28 years. If the copyright holder wished, he or she was entitled to renew the copyrights in the 28th year and extend their exclusivity for an additional 28 years.
The rules since 1909 have evolved vastly, and as of 1978, an individual copyright holder is entitled to protection for the entire length of his or her life, plus 70 years. If a copyright is jointly owned, it is valid for the remainder of the surviving person’s life, plus 70 years. For works made for hire, copyrights last for 95 years from its first publication or 120 years after its creation (whichever is the lesser of the two).