Copyright is a law that grants creators exclusive rights over their creative expressions. You should think about copyright whenever you are considering using someone else’s creative work that was at any time fixed in a tangible medium of expression because if you use someone else’s creative work in a way that infringes their exclusive rights, you can be exposed to expensive legal penalties. Therefore, copyright applies and ought to be considered whenever you intend to reproduce, in whole or in part, something someone else originally created.
The types of “creative work” copyright applies to can be text, images, sound, objects, software, or designs: anything that is someone’s original expression. “Tangible medium of expression” doesn’t necessarily mean that the medium currently exists, only that such a medium ever existed: for instance, a radio broadcast exists (sometimes extremely briefly) on the recording equipment that captures and broadcasts it. Even if a permanent recording of the broadcast wasn’t made or wasn’t kept, the broadcast itself is still copyrighted. This same principle applies to the random-access memory of computers. If something ever existed in any digital form, it could be copyrighted even if it no longer exists or has become inaccessible. Therefore, you should think about copyright whenever you are considering using someone else’s creative work as a part of your own, new work.
You should begin by assuming that all original, creative works are protected by copyright before looking for a reason why they may not be, such as whether they have entered the public domain. If you determine that a work is not in the public domain and you still want to reproduce it in whole or in part, you can:
- Obtain permission from the rights-holder
- Consider whether your use is protected by an exception or defense
- Modify your plan to avoid infringing copyright
To determine who holds a copyright and can give you permission to use it, consider the creators and publishers of the work. The copyright holder is generally the creator, but could be someone who commissioned the creator to create the work “for-hire”, or a publisher who the creator agreed to transfer their copyright to.
Your own creative work is copyrighted from the moment of its creation (assuming it is actually is your work and not a work you did “for-hire”). Although you automatically hold copyright to your own works, you must register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office before you are allowed to bring lawsuits to enforce your copyright. You can register your copyright by filling out a brief form and depositing two copies of the work with the Office. Timely registration—within three months of the work’s public distribution—makes it much easier to recover money damages from an infringer.