Copyright Law

U.S. copyright law protects the rights that authors and creators have over their Intellectual Property (IP). These creations can include literature, dramatic or musical productions, and other works, but they must be produced in a tangible form to qualify for copyright. Copyright laws do not protect ideas or discoveries but may protect the way creators can express their ideas and discoveries.

Get Legal Help Today

secured lock Secured with SHA-256 Encryption

Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

Full Bio →

Written by

UPDATED: Aug 9, 2021

Advertiser Disclosure

It’s all about you. We want to help you make the right legal decisions.

We strive to help you make confident insurance and legal decisions. Finding trusted and reliable insurance quotes and legal advice should be easy. This doesn’t influence our content. Our opinions are our own.

Editorial Guidelines: We are a free online resource for anyone interested in learning more about legal topics and insurance. Our goal is to be an objective, third-party resource for everything legal and insurance related. We update our site regularly, and all content is reviewed by experts.


  • Copyright protection exists the moment the author creates the work and transforms it into a tangible format
  • Copyright law also allows for the transfer of ownership from the author to their heirs through wills, state laws of intestate succession, or by operation of law
  • The most common copyright violation is the illegal downloading and sharing of movies and music without the consent of the producers

There are three basic Intellectual Property law protections: copyright, trademarks, and patents. Often, copyright law can be impacted by business law, but in this article we are specifically discussing your rights under U.S. copyright laws.

Copyright protection exists the moment the author creates the work and transforms it into a tangible format. You can choose to register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. Although it’s not required, copyright registration is the only way to successfully prosecute copyright violations in court.

Keep reading for a copyright law summary, including getting a copyright, and free legal advice regarding how long a copyright lasts and when to hire a copyright law attorney to protect your intellectual property and creative licenses.

If you have questions regarding your copyright registration or need to speak with a copyright lawyer right now, enter your ZIP code above to find affordable copyright law firms in your area.

What is copyright law?

U.S. copyright law protects the rights that authors and creators have over their Intellectual Property (IP). These creations can include literature, dramatic or musical productions, and other works. IP may take the form of film, print and graphic works, sound recordings, technological software, or sculpture and architecture. Copyright laws won’t protect ideas or discoveries, but may protect the way the creators of those ideas and discoveries express them.

Copyright law does not protect works that are not preserved in a tangible form. It does not protect titles, names, phrases, or slogans. Lists of ingredients or contents, ornamental typographic letters, and coloring, symbols, or designs that are commonplace cannot obtain copyright licensing.

Slogans, design elements, and symbols may be protected by trademark in some circumstances. Similarly, systems or mechanisms or processes can be protected by patents. These three types of protection — trademark, patent, and copyright — are the types of intellectual property that can be protected under U.S. law.

Copyright law defintions state that owners of the copyright have exclusive rights to reproduce their works in copies or records. They can create derivatives of their original work and distribute them to the public. They can sell, rent, or lease their original works, and authors can perform, display, or digitally transmit recordings of their works.

However, when an author creates a work-for-hire, they are still the owner of the copyright even if they did not create the work. What is a work-for hire? It’s a legal agreement where an individual creates the work as part of their regular duties for an employer.

In order for the author to maintain copyright ownership in a work-for-hire situation, the rights must be retained through a business contract with the hired creator, or the created work must be incorporated into a collection or compilation, educational and instructional texts, supplemental works, a translation, a film or other audio/visual work.

Copyright law also allows for the transfer of ownership from the author to others. An owner of a copyright can transfer ownership to their heirs in a will, by state laws of intestate succession, or by operation of law. For the transfer of exclusive rights, the original owner or their authorized designee is required to have the transfer in writing. A transfer of nonexclusive rights does not have to appear in writing.

Get Legal Help Today

Find the right lawyer for your legal issue.

secured lock Secured with SHA-256 Encryption

What is a typical violation of copyright law?

The music industry provides a prime example of copyright infringement understood by almost any modern consumer. An example is the unauthorized use of music. It is indeed a copyright violation to download music from a website that is not owned by the author of those creative works. This is also true for the unauthorized download of TV shows, videos, books, even e-books.

To make matters worse, those sharing websites usually encourage users to share the downloads with others. This activity is a clear example of copyright infringement.

What can I do to protect my copyrights and intellectual property?

There are several actions copyright owners can take to protect their intellectual property (IP), including:

  • Keep a careful eye on your creative work
  • Know your IP rights as they pertain to your work and consult with copyright attorneys and experts in the IP field, especially if you are licensing your IP for use by a third party
  • Take steps to protect your IP rights immediately, like registering a copyright as soon as the work is created
  • Keep detailed records of your IP
  • Register your business name and your domain names as it may help to establish ownership of your IP in the event of copyright infringement or other copyright law violations
  • Employ confidentiality agreements or nondisclosure agreements for employees, co-writers, and other creative partners
  • Adopt online security measures with respect to your IP and the increase of cyber attacks and hacking.

The easiest way to protect your intellectual property is to make sure that your network and computer connections are secured. All computer networks where your IP resides or has a connection to should remain password protected and encrypted. Using a virtual private network (VPN) for access to the internet can help keep your communications safe.

Consider using Wi-FI Protected Access 2 (WPA2). WPA2 is a security technique that applies to wireless networks. WPA2 provides greater security, more powerful protection for your data, and greater control over access to your network. WPA2 is one way to make sure that only authorized users can gain entry to your network. This is especially important for copyright owners who conduct business and/or create works over mobile devices.

Consult with a copyright attorney when it comes to making security decisions regarding your creative work and intellectual property. Your IP is a way for you to realize an income stream, and in some cases, such as licensing the movie rights to your book, that income stream may be substantial. You have the right to benefit from that income stream without infringement by others.

How do you register for a copyright?

Since March 1, 1989, the U.S. Copyright Office does not require the application of a copyright notice, but it may come in handy when enforcing copyrights. A copyright notice refers to the copyright symbol “©” or the word copyright followed by the name of the owner and the date the author first published the work.

In any event, the application of the copyright notice is not a replacement for registering a work. Registration of a work with the U.S. Copyright Office creates a claim to copyright protection for that work. Registration may occur anytime during the copyright term.

There are three things that must accompany an application for registration of copyright:

  • Completed application filed online or via paper sent by regular mail to the Copyright Office
  • Non-refundable application fee
  • Two copies of the work that are non-returnable, known as a deposit to the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress

The Copyright Office assigns the effective date of registration based on the date it receives all required materials. The sooner you prepare the copyright application and start the registration process, the sooner the copyright will go into effect.

Registration of copyright offers advantages, such as:

  • Viable evidence in an infringement lawsuit; courts require evidence of copyright registration or refusal before filing
  • Prima facie evidence of the valid copyright and true facts stated when registered or within five years of publication
  • Copyright owner’s eligibility for statutory damages, attorneys fees, and costs if the owner registered the work before infringement or within five years of publication
  • Allows copyright owner to create a record with Customs and Border Patrol to stop the import of infringing copies

Consult with a copyright attorney about your options, but it’s recommended that you register copyright to protect your rights to your own work.

When do copyrights end?

The answer to that question depends on when the author created the work. In general, with respect to original works created on and after January 1, 1978, the author’s copyright lasts until the end of the author’s life plus 70 years. Works-for-hire copyright protections terminate upon the shorter of either 95 years from the publication date or 120 years after creation.

Unpublished, unregistered works created before January 1, 1978, operate under the same copyright termination rules as those created on and after January 1, 1978. In no event, however, does the copyright end before December 31, 2002. If the author published the work before December 31, 2002, then the copyright protection lasts until December 31, 2047.

Works created before January 1, 1978, and published or registered before that date, had an initial copyright term of 28 years. At the end of the initial period, the term could extend for another 67 years, for a total of 95 years of copyright protection.

How do I hire a copyright attorney or intellectual property lawyer?

Copyright law is a particular field of law that requires an attorney with specific skills and experience. When seeking representation to obtain copyright protection, defense against accusations of infringement, or to decide whether to pursue a case of copyright violation, the following are a few pertinent questions to ask an attorney:

  • How knowledgeable and experienced in copyright law is the prospective lawyer?
  • What is the lawyer’s background both in and out of the copyright arena? Narrow experience in copyright law may lead to unforeseen conflicts of interest with your case.
  • What are the advantages of licensing my copyright to another?
  • Should I consider international IP protection?

Copyright law in the U.S. is a broad topic. Consult with a local copyright lawyer to answer your specific questions. Ask now. Enter your ZIP code below to get in touch with an affordable copyright attorney near you for free.

Get Legal Help Today

Find the right lawyer for your legal issue.

secured lock Secured with SHA-256 Encryption

Frequently Asked Questions: Copyright Law

Scroll through for answers to the top two commonly asked questions about copyright law:

#1 – What is the U.S. Copyright Office address?

You may ask questions or file an application and attachments via regular mail at the following address: Library of Congress, U.S. Copyright Office, 101 Independence Avenue, SE #6304, Washington, DC 20559-6304.

You can also contact the Copyright Office online at

#2 – What is the history of copyright law in the U.S.?

In 1790, the U.S. Constitution encompassed the notion that the author of a work should enjoy the benefits from their work, if only for a limited time. The original protections in the constitution were modeled after British law and only protected maps, charts, and books for 14 years. There also was one renewal possible for another 14 years. The specifics of U.S. copyright law have changed through the centuries since ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The following paragraphs describe a timeline of key statutory and case law modifications.

In 1802, Congress required copyright owners to add a copyright notice to every copy of a work distributed to the public. In 1831, musical compositions join the list of copyrighted works, and the time period for protection increases to 28 years, and in 1834, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Wheaton v. Peters case.

The Court decided three things that underpin modern copyright jurisprudence in the U.S.:

  • Congress had the power to require conditions that limit copyright protection
  • Common-law copyright does not exist in published works
  • No one has the right to copyright court opinions but could copyright summaries and opinions of other people

In 1856, dramatic compositions and public performances joined the list of works protected by copyright laws. Nine years later, Congress amended copyright law to protect photographs and negatives.

In 1870, Congress revised the copyright law to include works of art and to permit authors to create their derivative work, translations, and dramatizations.

In 1880, the Supreme Court recognized the exclusion of ideas from the protections of copyright law but recognized that the expression of those ideas was protected.

In 1891, the U.S. signed the International Copyright Act of 1891 which allowed copyright protections to works credited by authors in other countries.

In 1897, the U.S. Copyright Amendment Act forbid unauthorized public performances of protected music.

In 1903, commercial art became subject to copyright protection.

In 1908, in response to a recent Supreme Court decision holding that piano rolls were not copies of works, Congress passed a law giving copyright owners the nonexclusive right to create mechanical reproductions of their own musical works.

In 1909, President Teddy Roosevelt signs the Copyright Act of 1909 which granted protection to publications showing a valid copyright notice on copies. This Act was also the first time that a compulsory mechanical license issued. The license allowed the reproduction of musical compositions without the copyright owner’s consent if made in accordance with the terms of the license.

In 1912, motion pictures joined the list of copyrightable works.

In 1917, the Supreme Court decision in Herbert v. Shanley ruled that restaurants had to pay royalties on music played for customers. The ruling creates the necessary legal boost for ASCAP to license music users.

In 1947, copyright law was made part of the U.S. Code.

In 1953, nondramatic works were added to the list of works that enjoyed recording and performing rights.

In 1972, copyright protections extended to sound recordings fixed and published after that date. Earlier recordings came under state laws.

In 1976, Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976. This Act expanded copyright laws to published and non-published works once the author put them in fixed form. The Act extended the term of copyright protection to the life of the author plus 50 years. An additional amendment changed the term to the life of the author plus 70 years; and adds a term of 95 years from the first date of publication or 120 years from creation, whichever comes first, a term that applies to works-for-hire or anonymous works.

In 1998, President Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which gave limited online infringement liability to internet service providers (also known as ISPs).

In 1980, computer programs became copyrightable.

In 2018, Congress passed the most comprehensive copyright legislation in decades. The Music Modernization Act overhauled copyright protections for music in the marketplace and revised the law regarding producer royalties.

The 2020 Copyright Act created a new small claims court, the Copyright Claims Board (CCB), to hear copyright claims up to the statutory amount. Three copyright claims officers sit on the board. The small-claims forum allows copyright owners to seek a determination on copyright infringement and damages up to $30,000USD. The CCB may also issue injunctions to cease the infringement. Unsuccessful parties may challenge the CCB determination in federal court.

Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 incorporated the Copyright Alternative in Small Claims Enforcement Act of 2020 (the 2020 Copyright Act) and provides increased criminal penalties for platforms that make it easier to download copyrighted materials without author permission.

Get Legal Help Today

Find the right lawyer for your legal issue.

secured lock Secured with SHA-256 Encryption