Copyright technically arises in a work as soon as it is "fixed in a tangible medium" (this usually means as soon as it is located or stored somewhere other than in your mind). Copyright protects various types of works of "authorship," including written works, musical works, visual works, dramatic works, sound recordings, architectural works, and so forth.
Copyright does not only protect those things that may be considered "artistic." Things like your employee manual may be protected by copyright and may allow you to prevent an employee from reproducing it without your permission (though trade secret and contract laws may also protect your manual). Computer code may be protected by copyright as well and may allow you to prevent others from slavishly copying your code. Copyright protection can protect source code, object code, operating systems, application programs, user interfaces, and programs on integrated circuits.
Copyright only protects your "expression" of the work, not the underlying "facts." For example, while copyright may protect your employee manual, it does not protect the underlying steps outlined in some process given in the manual. Copyright would not allow you to prevent someone from writing a similar manual that outlines the same steps, but phrases them differently enough. Similarly, while copyright may protect your code from being copied exactly, it does not allow you to prevent someone from accomplishing the same underlying steps using different code (which is one reason why copyright and patent law have some overlap in the area of software protection).
Copyright gives the author the exclusive right to reproduce the work, create derivative works, distribute the work publicly, perform the work publicly, and display the work publicly.
Although copyright arises in a work before it is registered, there are at least two good reasons to federally register your work: (1) you cannot sue a party for copyright infringement until your work is registered, and; (2) you cannot obtain statutory damages or attorney fees in an infringement action unless your work was registered before the infringement began (for unpublished works) or within three months of publication (for published works).
The Law Office of Paul B. Johnson offers competitive rates on a variety of U.S. and foreign copyright services, many of which are billed on a flat-rate basis.
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