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What is a Copyright? An Overview of Copyright Basics

Copyright Explained

Do you want to protect your artwork, photography, or creative works? Then it could be time for you to get a copyright registration. Here, we dive into what copyright is, why it is so important, and how copyright law can apply to YOU and your business.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects a creator’s original works as soon as they complete the work in a tangible way. It gives the creator exclusive rights to make copies of his or her creation. Copyrights are issued by the government, usually for a fee, and once issued they give creators full legal rights to reproduce their art.

Let’s break it down a little bit further in our first example: Meet Dan.


He is a graphic designer who has just spent valuable time conceptualizing and creating a piece of graphic art to sell to a local coffee shop. His art is displayed on their walls when, one day, a customer sees the piece, loves it, and thinks, “I bet I could make that.”


She snaps a pic of the art and proceeds to replicate it at home, printing out a few copies — one for herself and a few to give to friends. Harmless, right? Well actually… not so much.
According to common law copyright rules, the creator of the original art is granted sole ownership of the work and protection against "copycats" immediately upon finishing the piece. Therefore, if Dan catches wind that these copies of his art are floating around, he has the legal grounds to bring the copycat to court.

What does a copyright protect?

Okay, so we get the basic gist of copyright law — it protects a creator from having their work copied without their consent. But what kinds of work exactly does it protect? Copyright law protects any ORIGINAL work in the artistic, scientific, and literary domain. For something to be defined as original, the Supreme Court says that it must have a “modicum,” or a “spark” of creativity.  

With this in mind, you can bet the list of works that are protected is pretty expansive. From novels to sound bites to poems, sketches, paintings, photos, speeches, advertising, sound effects, choreography (but those viral dance videos on TikTok don’t count!), jewelry, computer programs, architectural drawings… the list goes on. Basically, if you can create something tangible, it’s likely protected under copyright law. 

One big exception? Logos and taglines are not protected under copyright law. Though logos can be considered art, anything that distinguishes one brand from another is protected under trademark law. Don’t get confused! Learn the differences between trademark law and copyright law here.

Everything you need to know about Copyright law

How does copyright apply to YOUR business? Why should you care?

Okay, okay, you get it. But why should you care about copyright law? You have your original business idea and it’s not like you’re planning on copying anyone anytime soon. Well, copyrights can be great if you own a small creative business, such as a photography studio, copywriting service, graphic design services, etc. Your original work is the foundation of your business, after all!

You don’t want someone seeing how valuable your work is to then copy it and build their own brand off of it, do you? By copyrighting your tangible work, you are protecting yourself and everything you are working so hard for.

The good news?  You are automatically granted exclusive rights to your work through common law copyright. However, that doesn't mean you can take your copycats to court. To do that, you have to actually register a copyright through the U.S. Copyright Office. (If you're not a U.S.-based creator, you'll need to research copyright filing in your country!)

Though registering your copyright isn’t mandatory, it DOES allow you to sue third parties for copyright infringement, aka using your work without explicit permission. You just must make sure your copyright was registered within 3 months of creation.  For example, if you take a picture on January 1st and post it on April 1st, you can't register a copyright and have it protected for the time period between January and August. However,  you can register it starting on April 1st and protect that image moving forward.

Still not sure if you should get a copyright? Check out this post for five signs that you need a copyright to find out if it’s time to register your work.

What is copyright?

What is copyright infringement?

While copyrights can be great for protecting small businesses, they can also be devastating if you're caught on the other side — and that’s why it's crucial to understand how copyright law works.

“Copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.” U.S. Copyright Office - Definitions (FAQ)

Here’s another example: Say you create a killer 15-second ad for your business using fun imagery, copy, and a popular song you have a feeling people will love. This ad brings in lots of business — which is great! Until the original creator of the song sues you for copyright infringement. They made that song — not you — and you didn’t think to ask their permission for just fifteen seconds of sound. Well, suddenly that fifteen-second ad is going to cost you fifteen months of legal fees.

You can avoid this frustrating and costly situation by having a clear understanding of how copyright law works.

Two things to keep in mind when dealing with copyright law

Copyright only protects the physical representation of your work. This means no idea  is safe. So if someone else takes your idea, changes the colors, and starts making money off it, you’re out of luck. They can go out and rake in all the dollars they want with zero legal consequence.

In order for something to be copyrighted, it needs to be tangible —  aka you need to be able to hold it, see it, feel it, and ultimately distribute it. Ideas are not tangible, so copyright law cannot protect your ideas from being stolen. That's why it's important to keep this in mind when sharing profitable ideas for your new business with the world.

Copyright DOES have an expiration date. You won’t be able to sample an Elton John song in your work anytime soon, but Beethoven?? Fair game. 

Some key dates to keep in mind:
  • Anything published before 1924 is in the public domain, aka free for you to use.
  • Works published after 1923 but before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication.
  • If the work was created before 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of the author, plus 70 years.
Protecting your work from copycats

You're a copyright pro (well, kinda)

So, there you have it! You’ve just learned the ins and outs of copyright law in a nutshell, and you’re ready to get your hands on your own copyright registration. As your business continues to succeed, just remember these three crucial elements, necessary for your work to be protected by copyright law:

  1. Your work must be original
  2. It must be published in a tangible, fixed medium
  3. It must be creative!

Copyright questions? Need advice? Let us know in the comment section — we’re here to help!

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