The Truth About Copyrights

by e. lee caleca

Copyrights and Registrations

I just came across another question from someone confused about copyrights. Here are the facts about copyrights, registrations, and protection under Federal law regarding written works.

The Copyright Revision Act of 1976

The Copyright Revision Act of 1976 currently governs copyright law. Only tangible writings - writings that can be visibly seen - are subject to copyright registration and protection. This is where people get confused. There is copyright and there is registered copyright. You don't actually need to register a work. A copyright is automatically created when an author produces his or her work. You own everything as soon as you write it.

Published and unpublished works may be registered with the United States Copyright Office in Washington, DC. Registration of a copyright is voluntary and can be affected at any time during the term of the copyright.

The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998

The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 extended copyright protection to the following: Individuals are granted copyright protection for their life plus 70 years. This means your heirs can own your work for 70 years after you die. Copyrights owned by businesses are protected for the shorter of either 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the year of creation.
There is no state copyright law, only federal. Using the copyright symbol is redundant but may warn off infringers. Using the registered symbol shows that you have actually registered the work and will be very useful in court in case there is simultaneous creativity. It happens. Two people can be collaborating on an idea for a book, for example. One decides to scam the other, writes and publishes the book on his own. The other says the idea was stolen but the first person registered the work. The other has no proof that he was part of the idea. Even if he has notes, they are unpublished and he has no proof of when they were written.

The poor man's copyright registration is still a good idea. It is a copy of the work mailed to yourself, with a dated postmark. The package must remain unopened forever until it is needed as proof of registration. The law states that whomever wrote the piece first, owns it.

Public Domain

After the copyright period is up, the work enters the public domain, which means anyone can publish the work without paying the prior copyright holder. Copyright infringement occurs when a party copies a substantial and material part of the copyrighted work without permission. You can bring civil action against the infringer and try to recover the profit made by the infringer, any damages suffered by you, an order to cease and desist, and destruction or impoundment of infringing material.


In a recent forum, there was a discussion about how a Getty picture taken in 1916 can still be under copyright. I searched the Library of Congress from the inception of the first copyright law, 1831 up through 1916. At the time, authors had the rights to their work in perpetuity. Photographs had already been included into the domain of copyrightable material. The assumption is that the Getty image is held under the copyright law that was in place at the time of its taking.


Cheeseman, Henry. Business Law. 7th Ed. London: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009

U.S. Library of Congress