It’s safe to assume that at some point most, if not all, of us have read or seen something so similar to an idea we’ve thought up that we exclaim, “Hey! That’s my idea!”
While it’s impossible to protect an idea alone, you can protect the creative expression of an idea under copyright. But what does that mean exactly? Basically, if an idea is fixed in a tangible form and demonstrates a spark of creativity, it could be protected by copyright. The most common examples of works that can be protected by copyright include literature, music, and visual art. However, copyright protection extends much further, to things you may not have thought of before. How many creative works from the list below would you have guessed could be protected by copyright?
- Video Games. Video games can be registered as computer programs—more on that here.
- Foreign Works and Translations. These types of works are protected through reciprocal treaties, like the Berne Convention.
- Computer Software. It is written in a language, although not one read by many humans. The U.S. Copyright Office published a report on the topic in 2016.
- Selfies. Selfies can be registered as photographs. In fact, up to 750 photographs can be registered on one application, but you must select the designation for group registration.
- Diaries. Diaries can be registered as works of literature. Here’s hoping you never find mine, but if I want to, I can register it as a literary work.
- Costumes. Clothing designs may be eligible for copyright protection if they demonstrate a degree of creativity. Theatrical costumes may fall into this category. They would be registered as works of visual art.
- Houses. Houses may also be registered as works of visual art. Our dream house would be right next to the Copyright Office.
- Toys. Many, many toys are registered for copyright protection with the Copyright Office. The three-dimensional ones, for example, can be registered as works of visual art.
- Websites. Bet you never thought of that one! But, websites are creative works and may be eligible for copyright protection as well. They can be registered as other digital content.
- Speeches. In fact, some of our country’s most famous speeches have been registered with the Copyright Office as literary works.
As you can see, copyright protection for creative works is broad! So the next time you find yourself saying, “Hey, that’s my idea!” it’s worth thinking about whether it might be protected under copyright. Want more examples of what to do next time you have a great idea? Check out our YouTube channel and subscribe for future content!
Question please. If I hire a writer to compose a technical manual, I own the copyright. But, if I hire a photographer to photograph something I have under copyright, such as a house, why does the photographer own the copyright? They all claim they do. Same for art-for-hire. Why doesn’t the one contracting for the work to be done, own the copyright?
By law, copyright initially vests in the author(s) of the work. Ordinarily, the author is the individual(s) who created the work. “Works made for hire” are an exception to this rule. In the case of a work made for hire, the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author for purposes of this title, and, unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise in a written instrument signed by them, owns all of the rights comprised in the copyright. Whether a work is a work made for hire is determined by facts in existence at the time the work is created. The work made for hire concept can be complicated. For more information, see Circular 30.
Thank you for the article. I wrote a short book inspired by a music album I wrote, which contains 10 songs. I was wondering how I would copyright the book if I recorded my voice reading the chapter, and then play the song afterwards. Would it be a literary work, sound recording, or both. The album already has a copyright.
Applications for registration can be submitted for both the new sound recording and the literary work contained therein. Typically the sound recording would be a separate registration from the underlying literary content. However, it may be possible to register both components together. For more information please see Circular 56.
Can a “character” that has not appeared in print or in a video context be copyrighted? A completely modern character (based on a historical personage) but updated from the sixth century to the twenty first). Not Santa Clause (Saint Nicholas) but similar. Another Saint with similar historical context? “Santa Gustine”, based on Saint Augustine, The Bishop of Hippo (North Africa) in the late 6th century and early 7th century AD?
An original literary expression or original artwork that portrays a character can be protected by copyright. Copyright does not protect ideas or names. Therefore, copyright does not extend to character traits or attributes, such as the concept of a character that can fly, or have other “superpowers” or special abilities. The name of character is also not protected. The same is true for historical figures and common mythological figures.
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And get some.further,information.
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My granddaughter has made drawings on her computer using a program she subscribes to. Somehow someone posted one of her drawings on social media claiming they were the artist. How can she copyright her work so this never happens again? I appreciate any help you can give me.
Hi Karen. You and your granddaughter may find our Engage Your Creativity page helpful for this. It’s full of great resources to learn more about how to protect your work using copyright, like this handout on copyright registration.