Guide to Laws About Creative Content in the U.S. (Copyright and Other Laws)

Most issues related to creative or business work fall under copyright law. Copyright is one of four types of “intellectual property.” Intellectual property simply refers to the rights of ownership or use of a work or creation of some kind.

There are 4 types of intellectual property:

  • copyright (protects creative works) – [this page]
  • trademark (protects business branding)
  • patent (protects inventions)
  • trade secret (protects business information)

See our Guide to Intellectual Property for more.

1. General Copyright Info

What does it mean to have a “copyright” and how does it work?

Having a copyright for a work, such as a piece of writing, art, music, etc., means you “own” the intellectual aspects of the work, and it is your property (“intellectual property”), much like you own physical objects such as a computer. This means you have the right to determine what happens with that work, to prevent or allow others to use the work, and to make money from the work.

Owning vs. right to use (licensing)

When you own the copyright to a work, you essentially have full control over it. When someone else owns the copyright to a work, the owner may allow you the right to use the work in certain ways, which is called “licensing” or “granting a license” to use the work. See more about licensing below.

What types of works can get copyright protection?

Many types, as long as the work has sufficient creative and original content. But keep in mind, usually the ideas or concepts within the work are not protected, unless the new work is so similar to the original work as to be a “derivative” (see below).

Here are some types of copyrightable works:

  • Writings (of substantial length, usually more than 100 words, but there are no exact rules here); includes books, articles, blog posts, etc.
  • Visual
    • video/movies
    • photographs
    • graphic designs
    • street art
    • sculptures
    • paintings
    • architecture
    • fashion (limited)
  • Software code
  • Music
  • Websites
  • Theater
  • Business plans and charts

For a full list of various types of works and how they can be protected other than through copyright, see our Guide to Intellectual Property.

See more Laws for Artists; Laws for Bloggers; and Laws for Entrepreneurs

What types of work does copyright NOT protect?

Copyright generally does not protect ideas, information, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. But you may be able to get a patent for these, or they may be protected as “trade secrets.”

Copyright also doesn’t protect titles, names, short phrases, or slogans. But if you are using these in the context of a business, you may be able to get a trademark.

So how do I protect my ideas?

See our Guide to Intellectual Property for more.

What specific ways does copyright protect my work?

As the creator of a work, copyright protection gives you the exclusive rights to:

  • Create derivative works (works based on or derived from an original work)
  • Reproduce the work (make copies)
  • Distribute copies by sale or rental, or lending
  • Perform/display the work publicly
  • Music: perform work by digital audio transmission

2. Obtaining & Receiving Copyright Protection

How do I obtain copyright rights to my work?

Copyright protection is not all or nothing, protected or not protected. There are various degrees of copyright protection, such as whether it is easier or harder to sue someone for copyright infringement, and how much money you could win for an infringement claim.

For most work you create, you own the copyrights automatically as soon as you create it in a fixed form (such as typing, writing or recording it), and nobody else can copy your work without your permission. You are (usually) considered the author (creator) of the work. Note that the term author does not only apply to books or other writings. It is the term in copyright law that refers to any creator of any work.

A work doesn’t even need to be published, and you don’t even need to register with the U.S. Copyright Office. This is the “base level” of protection. Ways to increase your copyright protection include:

  • put a copyright notice on the work using © (c in a circle) (see below)
  • registering with the U.S. Copyright Office

See our Guide to Copyright Registration for more.

Can an animal receive copyright registration for a work they created?

No, only humans are considered creators or authors for the purpose of copyright protection. A copyright claim must involve human authorship. A court in 2018 made clear that a monkey could not sue for copyright infringement.

Can a robot or AI (Artificial Intelligence) or algorithm receive copyright registration for a work it created?

No, only humans are considered creators or authors for the purpose of copyright protection. The U.S. Copyright Office recently rejected a copyright claim on a picture created by an algorithm.

That said, if a human claims authorship of a work, which was made using AI, this would generally be a valid copyright claim.

3. Work for hireand assigning or transferring your rights

The concept of work for hire (aka work made for hire) can apply to both employees creating work for their employer, as well as freelancers/businesses creating work for clients.

Does my employer own my work?

For employees, creative work done for your employer within the scope of your employment is generally considered “work made for hire,” and your employer probably automatically owns the rights to all of it. See Guide to Laws for Employees for more.

Does my client own my work?

For freelancers or creative businesses, if someone (usually a client) asks you to create content for them, you generally own the copyright for that content unless you have a written agreement that says otherwise. If you do not have a written contract, the client would only have the right to use the content (a “license,” see below for details).

However, clients often will require you to sign a “work for hire” (aka “work made for hire”) contract with them that states that they will automatically own the copyright to the work you create for them. But work for hire agreements are valid only for certain types of work (generally limited to a contribution to a collective work, such as a blog, magazine, or film). You may instead agree to assign/transfer to the client the copyrights to the work, which gives you a bit more protection. To maintain the most control of your work, you can agree to give the client only a limited license to the work (see below).

4. Infringement of your work

What should I do if I see a website stealing my copyrighted material?

You have the right to require that any website that displays your copyrighted materials without your permission quickly remove it from the site.1Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998) You simply need to send them a “DMCA Takedown Notice.” See here for details.

What can I do about someone infringing on my work offline?

If you are quite sure that someone is ripping off work that you hold copyrights to (you may want to check with a lawyer), you can send them a “cease and desist” letter to demand that they stop using the work, and potentially also demand payment for their use of your work.

5. Infringing others’ work

Is it OK to make fan art?

Maybe. See our Guide to Fan Art.

What do I do if Getty or Corbis (or another copyright owner) sends me a cease and desist letter for using their images or other content?

You may want to talk to a lawyer right away.

Here are some questions the lawyer will likely ask you: Do you have proper records of licensing the content? Can the purported copyright owner prove that they have the copyright to the content? How extensive is your use of the content? How much money did you make from the content?

You are probably OK if one or more of the following applies: you are sure you are properly using the content and you can prove it; your usage and profits are minor; the copyright for the material was not registered and the purported copyright owner can’t otherwise prove ownership.

6. Licensing – allowing others to use your work

There are 2 types of licenses – exclusive and non-exclusive. Giving someone an exclusive license means that person is the only one who can use your work or decide whether others can use it or not (not even you can use it anymore!).

Giving someone a non-exclusive license is allowing them to use your work, while allowing yourself the ability to continue using it and to continue allowing others to use it. You can usually set limits on how they use the work.

To give someone an exclusive license, you must put it in writing (a “license agreement“) and sign it. It’s not necessary for a non-exclusive license, but it’s generally better to do this.

7. Exceptions to or expiration of copyright protection

What is “fair use” of a work?

See our Guide to Fair Use.

How long does copyright protection last? Does copyright protection expire? 

Copyright protection can last quite awhile. For works created after 1978 which were not work for hire, copyrights last until 70 years after the death of the author (creator). For example, if an author creates a work at age 30, and lives until 80, that copyright would last 120 years (50 + 70).

For works made for hire, and anonymous and pseudonymous works, the duration of copyright is 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter (unless the author’s identity is later revealed in Copyright Office records, in which case the term becomes the author’s life plus 70 years).

Works created before 1978 have copyrights up to 95 years after the date of publication or registration.

What is the Public Domain?

When copyright protection expires, the underlying works are considered to be in the public domain. This means that anyone can use them for any purpose (unless they violate other laws such as the right of publicity).

Works created in the U.S. over 95 years ago are now considered to be in the public domain.

8. Copyright and photography

You own a photo when you have actually pressed the “shoot” button or instructed someone else to, regardless of whose camera you use and regardless of who is in the photo. (See for example the macaque monkey who grabbed a man’s camera to take a selfie. The macaque would have owned the photo except for the fact that he wasn’t human.) So merely the fact that you are in a photo does not give you any ownership rights to it whatsoever. (But you may have the right to stop others from making money from a photo of you)

9. Copyright and the Internet/Social Media

Do I have rights to content I create and put on the internet or social media?

In general, yes, but it does get tricky, particularly for social media. See our Guide to Creative Work Online.

Can I post someone else’s picture, video, or writing on my social media?

See our Guide to Posting On the Internet.

10. Copyright and film

Who owns the copyright to a movie?

Usually this is determined in advance by the various people involved in making the movie. But if it’s not, the producer generally has the exclusive copyright, not the writers, directors, or any of the actors.

11. Copyright and the Government

Can state governments use copyright protected material without permission?

Yes! States are essentially immune from copyright law. This is based on the general principle of state sovereign immunity, which means that a resident of a state cannot sue that state in federal court.2Allen v Cooper (2019)

Are laws (statutes, court opinions, etc) protected by copyright?

No. All official records of the law, including state and local code books, and their official annotations, are in the public domain and freely available to everyone.3Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org, No. 18-1150 This includes court decisions and opinions.

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