What is a Copyright?
Are you trying to figure out what a copyright is? What it means? Maybe you’ve even read a legal definition of it and you’re still not quite clear on what its all about. In this article, I provide a simple explanation of copyrights in non-legal, layman's terms. If you prefer, you can also watch the video on my tutorials page that provides the same information contained in this article.
For starters, it's worth mentioning that the word “copyright” itself is not very helpful in understanding what that term means. That's because “copyright” is a word that was created hundreds of years ago to describe how corporations would acquire the right to copy something from an author. Today, copyright is much more expansive and includes a bundle of rights and protections that an author or an artist acquires when they create an artistic or literary work.
Ok, so how do we get these artistic rights that we call copyright?
Well, as soon as you actually physically create an original, artistic, literary or creative work, at that moment of creation the law gives you, as the creator, certain rights over that work. And those rights are what we call a copyright.
Now, there's a bit of terminology here that needs to be explained:
What do I mean by physically create? Well for one thing, you can't just have an idea. You actually need to express that idea in some kind of physical manifestation. Let me give you an example: Let's say you come up with a really cool idea for comic book character: let's say this character is orphaned as a child, raised by an eagle and he carries carries an eagle plume around with him that he can use to summon his incredible eagle powers!! Ok, I realize that's not the most exciting (or creative) idea, but that's why I'm a lawyer and you're the creative person. Nonetheless, the issue here is that, after you come up with the idea for this Eagle Man character, how do you express that idea?
Well one way you can do is you can just talk about it the way I talk about it in the video. But talking about something really doesn't give you copyright protection. You actually have to take Eagle Man and give him some kind of physical manifestation. For example, you can draw a picture of Eagle Man and that picture would have copyright protection. Or you can write a story about Eagle Man and the story would have copyright protection. And that's because whether it's a drawing or painting or a story, the way we create those is we actually use pen and paper or a computer or something similar to create something that is tangible and physical that you can actually make a copy of and then show it around. That's when you actually get copyright protection--when you have that kind of a physical or tangible manifestation of your idea. In legal terminology, we refer to this as “fixation in a tangible medium of expression.”
Now, the other thing that you need to have in order to get copyright protection for your work is that it has to be original. Originality here doesn't mean that its unique or novel. All it really means is that you didn't copy your work from somebody else. In other words you independently created it by yourself on your own.
However, copying doesn't have to be verbatim in order to violate the originality requirement. For example if you've heard something or seen something and you try to reproduce it from memory and you manage to reproduce it pretty accurately—that’s still considered copying! In other words, you don’t need to actually be looking at something and copying it for it to be considered copying.
Lastly, in addition to being original and created by you, your work also has to carry just a minimum amount of creativity. This is not a high threshold. The law really doesn't want to be an arbiter of what is creative and what is not. It just has to have a minimum amount of creativity to qualify for copyright protection.
Types of Artistic Works
And finally most types of artistic works are protected by the copyright laws. I use the term artistic work, whereas the law uses the term "works of authorship" and it refers to anyone that has a copyright as an author. Again that's a term that is left over from the history of copyright which really started with just authors. But today all types of people who create artistic works are protected.
This includes: photographers, painters, novelists, filmmakers, songwriters, audio recordings, architects, choreographies, pantomimes even are protected. The only things that are not going to have protection are things that don't have a lot of permanence. For example, ice sculptures or sand sculptures are going to have a hard time getting copyright protection. Otherwise just about everything else is protected.
I hope you've enjoyed this primer on copyright and found it informative. If you
have any questions or comments, or any general questions about copyrights, please feel free to email me and I'll try to answer them as quickly as I can.