Frequently Asked Questions About Copyrights
- What is a copyright?
- Who owns the copyright?
- Do I need to register my copyright?
- How do I register my copyright?
- How do I stop someone from infringing my copyright?
- If I win a copyright lawsuit, can I get money from the infringer?
- Can copyrights be bought and sold?
- How do I use someone else’s work without having to buy the copyright?
What is a copyright?
A copyright is your right, as an author of a creative work, to prohibit others from using your work in certain ways. A “work” can be any one or more of a number of different things, such as a book, a computer program, lyrics, music, a painting, a sculpture, a photograph, or a video recording – just to name a few. Your copyright arises automatically as soon as your work is fixed in a tangible medium – you don’t need to do anything else. However, getting a U.S. federal registration of your copyright adds tremendous benefits that you don’t get otherwise. For that reason, it is strongly recommended to consult with an intellectual property attorney about registering your work.
Who owns the copyright?
In general, the copyright in a creative work is owned by the creator of that work. However, that is not always the case due to a number of exceptions and special cases. For this reason, the although the question of who owns the copyright in a work seems like a straightforward question – it often isn’t. For example, if you hire a photographer to take your picture, you might think that you own the copyright in your own picture. But you don’t – the photographer does, even if you get a copy of the picture. You might think that if you pay someone to build a website for you that you own the copyright in the website. But you don’t – the website developer does. There are lots of situations like this where the owner of the copyright might not be the person who you think it would be. Our attorneys can assist you in determining copyright ownership issues and give you certainty regarding what rights you may have in your creative works.
Do I need to register my copyright?
Securing a copyright registration is valuable and important to authors because it provides certain rights that would not be available without a registration. For example, having a copyright registration grants the owner the right to bring a lawsuit against someone who has used their work without permission. An author cannot file a lawsuit against an infringer unless and until he has at least applied to federally register his work with the copyright office. Next, if an author wins a copyright lawsuit against an infringer, he may be eligible to have the infringer pay his attorney fees. However, in general, this is only possible if the work being infringed was federally registered before the infringement began. Similarly, by having a federal registration, an author may be able to receive a payment of a standardized amount of monetary damages from the infringer. This standardized amount is set by federal law and applies even if the author can’t prove that there’ve been any actual damages. None of these rights are available without a federal copyright registration.
How do I register my copyright?
You can get a federal registration of the copyright in your work by filling out a form, paying a fee, and sending a copy of your work to the Copyright Office. While anyone can do this for themselves, there are a number of reasons they might want to hire an intellectual property attorney to do it for them. Among other things, the copyright application is more complicated than it may look initially, which can make correctly completing the form difficult. Additionally, finding the right answers to questions about the process are equally as difficult. More importantly, however, is that making even a very simple mistake could cause you to lose some of your rights.
How do I stop someone from infringing my copyright?
The first step could be to send a letter to the infringer, informing them of your copyright registration, and pointing out their actions that infringe your copyright. This is typically all it takes to get a reasonable person who has mistakenly infringed your copyright to stop. But not everyone reacts like that. If the infringer refuses to stop, and you want to make them stop, then you have to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Like any litigation, this is a long and expensive process with an uncertain end.
If I win a copyright lawsuit, can I get money from the infringer?
Yes – maybe. One big problem with copyright litigation is, even if you win, it’s often difficult to prove that you’ve suffered any monetary damages. In a case like that, you might have paid a lot for the litigation, but then at the end, the court can’t award you anything because there haven’t been any monetary damages – or the damages were so low that they don’t even begin to pay the cost of the litigation. Fortunately, there are laws to protect you in such a situation – but only if you’ve registered your copyright before the infringement began. In such a situation you’re eligible to receive your attorney fees and certain standardized damages from the infringer. In a situation like this, you’ll be glad that you worked with an Intellectual Property Lawyer to register your work back when you created it.
Can copyrights be bought and sold?
You can sell your copyright or buy someone else’s copyright. This is done through a copyright assignment. After selling or buying a copyright assignment, all of the copyrights in the work belong to the new owner. However, this is different from merely buying the work itself. For example, just buying a painting does not give you any copyright in the painting. An assignment of the copyright is usually more complex than just buying the work, and it is smart to have an intellectual property attorney help you do that.
In addition to preparing the assignment agreement, a skilled attorney should know how to properly register the assignment with the Copyright Office, so that the assignment will be recognized as valid if it were ever challenged. For example, this could become an issue if the original owner of the copyright tried to sell the same copyright a second time to someone else. Having a valid copyright assignment that has been properly drafted, signed and recorded will help to ensure the original sale is recognized.
How do I use someone else’s work without having to buy the copyright?
If you want to use someone else’s work – or – if you want to let someone use your work for some specific purpose, then a copyright license is the appropriate agreement to do that. The license allows one person to make use of another person’s work, without transferring ownership of either the work itself or the copyright. This is usually done in exchange for a fee – upfront, ongoing, or both – paid by the licensee to the copyright owner. Other issues that should be considered in preparing a copyright license include the scope of rights conferred, the term of the license and whether it is an exclusive or non-exclusive license.
There are lots of issues to consider when drafting or entering into a copyright license or assignment agreement. These documents should be carefully prepared by an attorney to ensure that existing and future rights are protected. Attorneys drafting the documents should also consider the overall business objectives of the parties involved. If you are considering signing a copyright license or assignment or licensing or assigning your copyright, you should consult with an intellectual property attorney to ensure that you understand every provision of the agreement and that it meets your needs.
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