Copyright Protection

The source of protection of copyrights is predominantly two-fold: international treaties determine the essential terms of copyright protection and set the “floor”. Each signatory country has also adopted its own set of laws concerning Copyrights that conform to international standards.

These protections are not uniform. Some countries place greater emphasis on protection of the integrity of the work. Others, like the U.S., place greater emphasis on the economic value of the work. Nonetheless some uniformity does exist. The matter of how and when protection attaches is governed by international treaty (namely the Berne Convention).


A copyright exists the moment the work is fixed in a tangible medium. This means that the work must be in some kind of a permanent format before it gains protection. This can mean saving something to your hard drive or recording a song to CD. It could also mean writing it down or creating some other record or script of the work. Once the work is fixed it is protected under the copyright laws of the country where it was created. The copyright is also enforceable in every signatory country so long as that country’s procedures are followed.


A work must be an original work of authorship to gain copyright protection. While the work need not be an exercise of creative genius some minimum creativity is necessary. The creator must also be humanthe laws are ambiguous as to randomly generated computer images and the like, but it is necessary that the work have some human source. Finally, the work must be of the kind protected under copyright law: this includes literary works, sound recordings, musical compositions, dramatic works, choreographic works, pictorial and graphical works, audiovisual (film/television) works, and architectural works.


There are no longer registration or notice requirements to obtain copyright protection. Copyright protection attaches the moment an original work is fixed in a tangible medium. Registration (but not notice) is only necessary to enforce your copyright. A copyright must be registered with the Copyright Office before a plaintiff can have standing to sue on the copyright. Furthermore, if a copyright is registered within three years from creation it enjoys a presumption of validity under U.S. law.

In the early stages of copyright law development, the duration and requirements for protection differed drastically from what we have today. To be protected under copyright under the old law (prior to 1976), the work needed to be published, registered, and affixed with proper notice, namely: symbol and with the year and name of the author. The former requirements for notice, registration and renewal were abolished for the purpose of basic copyright protection several decades ago. Works created prior to that time were by and large “grandfathered” in so long as the copyrights were valid at the time the new laws came into effect. However, copyrights that had expired prior to the new laws belong to the public domain. Works that were protected under “common law” copyright (i.e., works that were fixed but had not been “published”) were also grandfathered in.

Most signatories to the Berne Convention have also adopted laws that gave retroactive protection to works originating in other signatory countries. As it relates to the U.S., works created in foreign countries that failed to meet the copyright law requirements under the old law (notice, publication, registration) belonged to the public domain. Under the Berne Convention most of those foreign copyrights were restored.


Copyright protection lasted in the U.S. under the 1909 Act for 28 years plus a renewal term of an additional 28 years if proper renewal procedure was followed. The 1976 Act changed this rule to life of the author plus 50 years. Several years later this term was extended again to life of the author plus 70 years. Anonymous works and works owned by companies or organizations now enjoy 120 years of protection. For joint works, the term is life of the last surviving author plus 70 years.