How to Get a Copyright: A Step-By-Step Guide
All artists, writers, and creators should know how to get a copyright and enjoy the rights and protections granted by the U.S. Copyright Act. Fortunately, with online options and reasonable fees, copyrighting something is well within your abilities. Here is an explanation of copyright protection and how to get something copyrighted.
What Is a Copyright?
Why would you need to know how to get a copyright? In one word — protection. Copyright is legal protection granted to authors of ‘original works of authorship
Original works of authorship are works created by human authors or artists and contain creative and original elements. The protection applies to registered works that are “fixed” — or finished.
Types of works protected under copyright law include:
- Literary works, like novels, short stories, movie scripts, and computer program code
- Musical works, including lyrics and musical compositions
- Dramatic works such as musical theater, plays, and any music accompanying those works
- Pantomimes and choreographic works
- Original pictures, graphics, sculptures, and other artistic expressions (including original logos)
- Motion pictures, TV shows, and other audiovisual works (including original YouTube videos)
- Sound recordings outside musical works, including series involving music, spoken word, or other sound compilations (common category used for music albums)
- Architectural works
What Rights Does Copyright Protect?
When you know how to copyright something, you gain exclusive rights to your work. That means you are the only one who can do the following:
- Make copies of your work (e.g., create prints of a painting or paperback copies of a book)
- Make derivative works based on your registered work (e.g., turn your photographs into t-shirts)
- Sell copies of your work
- Perform your work in public (applies to plays, musical theater, motion pictures, and other performance art)
- Display your work in a public setting (e.g., hanging your paintings in a gallery)
- Create digital audio transmissions (e.g., performing musical numbers in a podcast or YouTube Channel)
If other people use your work in these ways, you can sue them for copyright infringement. Or, you can give companies or individuals permission to use your work through a licensing agreement, which allows them to use your material for a fee. You can’t take advantage of these options unless your work has a registered copyright.
Who Can Register a Copyright?
Generally, the creator registers the copyright because it belongs to whoever created the work. If two or more people created the work, one creator might register the work, but copyright law gives each creator an equal interest in the work.
An exception to this rule is ‘works made for hire
.’ Works created by an employee or an independent contractor belong to the one requesting the work. The employee or contractor may not be able to copyright the work or own any rights.
How to Copyright Something: Basic Steps
Step 1: Create an Original Work
If you want to know how to get a copyright, you first need to create something! Copyright protection applies to original creations like books, movies, and graphic art.
Originality is a low standard, and as long as you didn’t copy someone’s idea directly, you likely pass that requirement. If you are concerned about whether your work is original, you may wish to search the public catalog for similar works.
Step 2: Decide How to Register
You have two options for registering copyright: Online or paper forms.
The Copyright Office prefers online registration, and you likely will, too. Online registration offers lower fees, faster examination and approval, status checking, and fee payment by debit or credit card. You can expect a turnaround time
ranging from one to eight months.
If you decide to use paper forms, you must choose the form package based on the type of work. But, be aware that this option can take longer and is more expensive; the filing fee for paper forms starts at $125, and you are looking at a turnaround time of 2 to 19 months.
Step 3: Complete an Application
Start by opening an account with a user ID and password if you decide on online filing. Choose the type of work that most closely matches the work you’re registering. Provide contact information and complete each required section.
For paper filing, choose the form package for your work’s type. The packets include TX (literary works), VA (visual arts), PA (performing arts, including movies), and SR (sound recordings). Fill them out with black or blue ink, and don’t skip sections.
Once finished, pay your filing fee. The online system accepts payments via debit, credit, or bank account. The system will not accept your filing fee until you complete the application. For mailed materials, pay the fee with a check or money order issued to the U.S. Copyright Office.
Step 4: Provide a Deposit Copy
A deposit copy is a copy of your work that you must provide with your application. The Copyright Office will use the deposit copy to decide whether you qualify for a copyright.
If your work is published, you must provide the ‘best edition
‘ of your work. The best edition is the highest quality format of your work. For example, if you are registering a music album, you want to provide a CD deposit copy of that album rather than a vinyl record. You can provide an electronic copy of your work; however, you may also have to provide a physical copy. The Copyright Office provides a list of acceptable file formats for electronic deposit copies.
The only exceptions to physical copy requirements are unpublished works or works published only online. For example, a digital copy should be enough if you only take digital photos and never make prints.
For visual art, your deposit copy should be ‘identifying material
‘ rather than the best edition. You don’t have to recreate your painting or sculpture to provide a deposit copy. Instead, you take high-quality pictures of each angle, showing the Copyright Office as much of your work as possible.
The Copyright Office sends deposit copies to the Library of Congress once they finish your application.
Step 5: Answer Correspondence
Most applications process smoothly and don’t need further information. Only 19% of all claims
require correspondence and clarification.
But if you fall into that category, answer all inquiries as soon as possible. Depending on the Copyright Office’s concerns, you may need to submit a new application or make changes to your original one.
Step 6: Accept or Appeal the Ruling
The Copyright Office doesn’t accept all applications. It may reject yours if:
- Your work lacks creative authorship (which often occurs when the material is more technical than creative)
- You did not complete your application, pay your filing fee, or provide an adequate deposit copy
- Your work doesn’t fall under copyright law, meaning it likely falls under trademark or patent law
- You submitted a work created by artificial intelligence
If you disagree with the ruling, you can file a request for reconsideration
. You must file this appeal within three months of receiving the Copyright Office’s decision.
The request for reconsideration requires a $350 filing fee
and must contain the following:
- A label reading “FIRST RECONSIDERATION” or “SECOND RECONSIDERATION” as applicable
- The case number that the Copyright Office assigned to you
- The seven-digit correspondence ID number in the subject line of the letter rejecting your copyright
- Your name and titles of the work as they appear in your application
- Why you believe the registration was improperly refused, including exhibits, additional information, and any legal arguments
You can request a second review, but it will require a filing fee of $700.
You can’t copyright a phrase, can you? You can copyright words that are brand names. And here is how to copyright a phrase.
You Can’t Copyright the Obvious Phrase
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Section 102 of the Copyright Act (Title 17 of the U.S. Code) defines copyright as an “original or artistic literary work.” A trademark is a “word or phrase.” So actually, you trademark a phrase.
Ideas, concepts, and recipes cannot be copyrighted. No individual or company can copyright an obvious phrase like “I walk.” But if you think carefully about your favorite soda, restaurant, or electronic company, each probably has a motto or “catchphrase” associated with them. If the phrase is “clearly created by the owner for the purposes of commerce,” then it can be copyrighted.
Examples of Copyrighted Phrases
A “catchphrase” is unique to a fictional or non-fictional character. It is a symbol distinguishing a brand. This literary, musical or graphical expression might identify a certain level of product or service quality.
The goal of a copyrighted phrase is to create clear value for commerce. By being copyrighted, consumers can ensure they are receiving the actual value they were promised. It creates reliable commerce.
The best way to qualify for a copyrighted phrase is to demonstrate that through a musical, graphical, or speech, the owner has “invented the phrase.” It must be closely tied to the brand. This can be done by including the logo or brand name in the phrase.
Steps to Protect Copyrighted Phrase
Find a way to time stamp your creation. Some have included an affidavit in an envelope and postmarked it to themselves. This creates a historical record in time. Next, use it for interstate commerce; this will make it recognizable and enforceable by federal law.
Here are some examples of copyrighted phrases:
- “Let’s get ready to rumble!”
- “Just do it!”
- “I’m lovin’ it!”
Register Your Copyright Phrase with the USPTO
Finally, register your copyright phrase with the USPTO. This creates a public record of your claim to ownership. The phrase becomes your property giving you exclusive legal rights for the purposes of commerce. It gives you leverage and the right and authority to file copyright infringement against others. The burden of proof is on them to prove the copyright does not belong to you. You can file an injunction against further use.
How Do Image Copyright Laws Work?
The internet allows you to access any images available online, but that does not mean these images are available for your use! Image copyright laws protect artists, photographers, and other owners and creators. Here’s how these laws work and how to ensure you only use permitted copyrighted images. This overview also includes tips on how to protect and copyright your images.
Current Image Copyright Laws
The U.S. Copyright Law protects images as “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.” That definition continues by explaining that two and three-dimensional works of “fine, graphic, and applied art, photographs, prints and art reproductions, maps, globes, charts, diagrams, models, and technical drawings, including architectural plans fall under copyright laws. If artists register their work through the U.S. Copyright Office, they secure full ownership of their work, and anyone who uses it without permission or credit could face penalties.
Types of Licenses for Copyrighted Images
You can avoid potential liability by using properly licensed images or public domain graphics. Fortunately, a variety of licensing options are more publicly accessible. Here are examples of paid and free licenses for copyrighted images.
Rights Managed License (RM License)
Stock images, or stock photos, are electronic images available for business or creative purposes. They allow you to add graphics to a website, blog, or other publication without hiring a photographer.
Most stock issues require you to purchase a license, and the rights-managed license (RM license) is the most restrictive. They are specialist images for limited use. You can only access and license them through an RM license agency, like Getty Images.
Before you get the license, you must explain exactly where you will use the image, the number of copies you intend to print, the image size, and your industry. Once you pay the licensing fee, the agency limits you to your described use. If you want to use the same image in a different medium, you must reapply for the license and pay another fee.
For example, if you purchase a license for this Pride graphic for a print magazine but decide you also want to use it on your web page, the original license won’t extend to the web page.
Also, your license only extends to one size, and you cannot make any changes to the graphic. Instead, you must have a separate license for each size.
You must also credit the artist and follow restrictions, even if you have a license.
If you see an RM license, trust that the artist is paying close attention to their intellectual property rights. These rights give the artist exclusive control to sell, license, and change their work without other parties interfering. Follow all rules attached to an RM license. Otherwise, you risk penalties.
Royalty-Free License (RF)
The royalty-free license (RF license) is the default setting for stock images. Generally, the purchaser pays the license fee once and can use the image in unlimited applications.
RF licenses have more options. You can use them multiple times for publication, e.g., web pages, brochures, magazines, etc. However, you will need an RM extended license to make merchandise that includes the image.
Royalty-Free Extended License
Royalty-free extended licenses are also called commercial extended licenses. Unlike the first two license types, which focus on publishing rights, this category applies to using images for commercial purposes such as putting pictures on mugs, shirts, and other merchandise.
You will know your desired image has an extended license if:
- The image indicates that a royalty-free extended license is an option
- There are instructions to contact the owner or agency if you want to use the image commercially
- You purchase rights to an extended image database and find your optimal image
Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that advocates for sharing creative works and knowledge. Images participating in Creative Commons licenses are free as long as you credit the image’s creator. You can credit the artist or photographer by linking to their website or the original image.
You can find Creative Commons images through photo services like Flickr. Usually, the photo indicates it has a Creative Commons license and links it to the license type, giving instructions on how to attribute and use the photo with the artist’s permission. The most common Creative Commons license is Attribution 2.0 Generic, which requires appropriate credit, a link to the license, and whether you edited the photo.
However, even Creative Commons allows licenses with restrictions. Notice this photo has “some rights reserved” with the dollar sign crossed out. The text leads the Creative Commons license that prohibits commercial purposes.
Editorial Use License
The editorial use license applies to trademarks and other graphics that belong to companies. Many journalists want access to these images when they write features on a company. Also, bloggers who write online reviews might request these types of images.
The best way to secure editorial use licenses is by requesting a media kit or visiting a company’s online press center. You can’t just grab the graphic from the company’s webpage. Doing so could violate image copyright laws, and you’re also unlikely to get a high-quality image.
Image copyright laws protect images during the artist’s life plus 70 years after their death. After that, the images enter the public domain and can’t be renewed.
You can use most public domain images without legal risk and with few limits. Public domain images are clearly marked, and some link back to this Creative Commons page to clarify public domain rules.
But, you should still be careful with public domain photos and images since some of them have moral rights under image copyright laws. These “moral rights” protect the image from mutilation, distortion, and derogatory action that impugn the subject’s value or reputation. Creative Commons calls these Public Domain Mark 1.0 images.
You find this public domain characterization most commonly with armed forces photos. Military branches often want to avoid stolen valor situations or vulgar edits of their photos, so they rely heavily on moral rights – even if the pictures are in the public domain.
Copyright Infringement Penalties and Exceptions
Understanding image copyright laws and licenses is essential because you don’t want to face the penalties for copyright infringement. Even if you didn’t intend to infringe, damages could reach $750 to $30,000 per work.
Intentional infringement could generate damages of up to $150,000 per work infringed. You may also owe the creator any profits you generated from infringement.
However, you may be able to avoid liability if using an image falls under the fair use exception. Courts evaluate fair use on four factors, although no one factor determines the outcome:
- Purpose and character of the use, e.g., commercial vs. nonprofit or educational use
- Nature of copyrighted work, e.g., fictional, educational, or consumable
- Amount of work used, e.g., thumbnail vs. entire art piece
- Effect on value of the work, e.g., does the alleged infringement reduce the market value of the work
In general, nonprofit or educational use is more excusable than commercial use. Using an excerpt from a novel to illustrate a point in a high school English class likely passes as fair use. However, suppose that same teacher scanned the entire book and made it available online as a PDF for a small fee. That would be likely infringement rather than fair use – even if the teacher argued distribution was “educational.” That action also devalues the novel by encouraging buyers to purchase the PDF rather than pay full price for a retail copy.
Fair use also applies to images. A thumbnail of a copyrighted art piece is likely acceptable, especially if clicking it takes you to the piece’s museum page. But if you download the piece in its entirety and start selling prints, you may face trouble!
How to Copyright Images
Want to know how to copyright your images, photos, and graphics? Start by applying to the U.S. Copyright Office. Provide your photo, art piece, or graphic, and pay the filing fee. Once confirmed, you can charge licensing fees.
Another option is to get a Creative Commons license. The license allows you to gain exposure and require people to credit you if they use your work. However, unlike the U.S. Copyright Office registration, there are no remedies if someone misuses your work.
Some artists reserve copyright image registration for their most cherished works and use Creative Commons on less valuable images to gain exposure and attract people to their Instagram accounts or websites. You may find a similar balance works for you.
How To Copyright Your Script
You’ve created your masterpiece. The script which is going to make you famous. You already have dreams of Broadway when you discover someone has stolen your idea. If you haven?t copyrighted your work, there?s a good chance you can?t do anything about it. Here?s what you should do after you’ve finished writing to protect your many hours of hard work.
The US is a country which falls in line with many others when it comes to copyright law. Anything with the copyright symbol and your name is automatically copyrighted. Whilst this will deter some would-be thieves, it won?t matter in a court situation where you?re trying to prove this is your work.
The problem with automatic copyright is it doesn’t specify the time it was written or when you copyrighted it. It?s essentially your word against someone else?s.
Contrary to what a lot of people think, you can?t prove automatic copyright with registered or recorded delivery. Sending yourself a copy of your own work won?t provide you with any evidence you could take advantage of in a court situation.
The US Copyright Office
The US Copyright Office is the only entity in the country which can formally issue you a formal copyright notice and registration with the Copyright Office. If you?re trying to sue someone for stealing your work, your work needs to be registered with the Copyright Office before you can sue them.
Always file your work with the US Copyright Office. Visit their website and follow their detailed guide on how to correctly file your request. This process takes up to six months, but there?s another option for protecting your work.
Interim Registration with the Digital Timestamps
Digital timestamps is a popular way of providing you with a sort of interim copyright notice. The main disadvantage with automatic copyright is the lack of any timestamp. With a digital timestamp from an independent company, you can prove when your work was created and registered.
Choose your digital timestamp provider carefully. Make sure they take documentary evidence of your work. Check the terms and conditions to ensure they would be willing to intervene on your behalf if you became a victim of theft.
Since the process with the Copyright Office lasts at least six months, this is a good way to defend yourself in the meantime. Once you’re fully registered, you don’t need to worry about anyone stealing your work because you’re fully covered and you’ll always win in court.