A copyright is of special importance to those who do creative work. Without one, your hard work goes unrewarded, because you no longer have a legal claim to the proceeds from it.
Whether you are a writer, a musician, a photographer, or any other kind of artist, a basic understanding of copyright law is one of the most important tools of your trade.
First, the biggest myth:
The “Poor Man’s Copyright,” otherwise known as mailing yourself a copy of your work, is not a copyright at all. This kind of evidence would fall apart in court for a few reasons:
- The first is obvious after a moment of thought. Mailing something does not prove authorship. You can put things in an envelope without creating them, so having had your hands on a manuscript on a certain date, does not mean that you wrote it.
- Secondly, copyright cases are rarely about authorship. They usually center around fair use and fair compensation to the original author. Plus, if your work is not registered, you have to sue in state court, not federal. This means you are only eligible for damages equal to the amount the infringement cost you.
- The Poor Man’s Copyright has never been used to aid a single case.
Understand These Key Terms
Copyright law can be complex, depending on the type of work, the country of origin, whether or not it was published, and even the intention of the author. Following are key terms that are important to know regarding copyrights:
- Public domain is the term used for works that no longer have an owner, like Shakespeare’s plays, and Beethoven’s symphonies. Published work is copyrighted up to 70 years after the creator’s death. After this point, royalties are no longer paid to anyone, and the work is considered to be owned by the public.
- Crown copyrights are used by a few Commonwealth countries to protect specific works and maintain the right of the government to control their production. The King James Bible in the United Kingdom is an example. This term does not apply to American copyright law.
- Public performance rights are granted to theaters and musicians that want to perform another artist’s work. Playwrights and composers typically do not want their work to be limited to being performed by only them, so they license other groups to have performance rights. These rights do not give licensees the right to materially change the work, only to produce and perform it.
- Reproduction rights are necessary for an artist to achieve distribution for their work unless they want to physically create every copy themselves. It allows another party to reproduce the work and to profit from that, such as in the case of a CD.
- Creative Commons is a nonprofit that was founded in 2001 and offers a “some rights reserved” form of copyright that expands the range of what third parties are allowed to do with copyrighted works. Some creators choose to work with Creative Commons to easily specify an artist’s preferences.For example, if a musician does not mind others remixing their songs, they can note that. Alternatively, if a photographer is fine with others sharing (but not selling) their photos, they can also note that.
There are many considerations to copyright law, but having a basic understanding of the law’s vocabulary can help simplify its complexities.