What can be protected by copyright?

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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...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Copyright protection is available only for “original” works that are “fixed” in a “tangible medium of expression”.

Copyright protection is not limited to works of artistic merit or those that receive critical acclaim; you can obtain the benefits of copyright protection for an “original” work regardless of its quality. However, in order to qualify for copyright protection, the work must have involved some minimal level of creativity.

The courts have not precisely defined how much creativity is “enough” of a creative spark to warrant copyright protection. Generally, courts have held that blank forms and alphabetical lists do not possess sufficient originality to constitute copyrightable works. Courts have also held that lists which are arranged, selected or organized in an original manner may be subject to copyright protection.

All that it takes for a work to be regarded as “fixed” is that it must be able to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

As to the need for a “tangible medium of expression”, almost any form of expression will qualify, including jottings on a napkin, an E-mail message, and a self-recorded dictating tape. However, a speech that you deliver from memory or song that you blurt out would not be a tangible medium of expression, unless recorded.

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