Copyright Law Made Simple: How Students Can Protect Their Work

Copyright legislation was first passed into U.S. law more than 200 years ago. Regulations protecting original works from infringement have been modified over time to accommodate changes in technology. In today's media landscape where infringement is more common than ever, copyright law is an important tool for the protection of individuals' work.

By Douglas Fehlen


Legal Protections Against Infringement

One of the most common misconceptions about copyright is that individuals must apply for it. In fact, copyright laws cover original works when they are created - the proverbial moment that pencil meets paper. The 1976 Copyright Law dictates that content you create - whether an academic article, code for a computer program or another work 'fixed in a tangible form of expression' - is immediately viewed by the law as your intellectual property and subject to protections. Should another person unlawfully copy your work, you have legal recourse to address the infringement.

Just what is 'fixed in a tangible form of expression'? The U.S. Copyright Office delineates the following categories: literary works; musical works (including accompanying lyrics); pictorial, graphic and sculptural works; dramatic works (including accompanying music); pantomimes and choreographic works; films and other audiovisual works; sound recordings; and architectural works. With the rise of electronic media in the three decades since landmark copyright legislation was passed, digital media have been interpreted to fall under existing categories (for instance, blog entries under 'literary works').

Under copyright law, individuals who are found to have infringed on others' work may be forced to cease further publication, destroy copies of works that include copied material and pay restitution to parties whose work has been misused. Important to note is that ideas, discoveries, procedures, titles, slogans and typographical treatments are not typically covered under copyright law, though individuals may pursue legal protections in many of these instances through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Applying for Copyright

While it is not essential to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office to protect it against infringement, there are advantages to doing so. Registration serves as a public notice of your ownership of a work, which can improve your standing in legal proceedings should they be necessary. For published works, it's a good idea to register work within three months of the original release date. This can help ensure you receive any applicable statutory damages and have court fees refunded should an infringement claim go to court. Copyright owners who do not register published works within that timeframe are still eligible for damages to recoup profit losses.

Registering for copyright requires you fill out an application, pay a filing fee and provide a copy of the work to the Copyright Office - whether that is a manuscript, an article, a piece of artwork or another format. While it can take a substantial period of time for works to be processed, enhanced copyright protections go into effect as soon as the Copyright Office receives application materials. The preferred method of registration is online, which features a lower filing fee, faster processing time and secure payment options. There are also forms that can be filled out and mailed in.

Works are protected for the course of an author's life plus an additional 70 years after her or his death. U.S. copyright laws apply only in this country; there are no international copyright laws, though most nations do have their own legislation protecting copyrighted work.

Would you like to share your work on the Internet while maintaining certain protections? Learn about Creative Commons licenses.

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