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Copyright at a Glance

Copyright is automatic!

Copyright protection in the U.S. exists automatically from the moment an original work of authorship is fixed in a tangible medium. Registration of copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office is voluntary. There are cases in which registration is recommended, but it is never required.


Do I need to register my work?

Registration is completely optional. That said, there are some scenarios for which it is useful.

  • Your work is going to be referenced. Registration serves as a record of ownership, which can be helpful if someone wants to figure out who owns a work. You become easier to contact about the use of your work.
  • You want to bring about an infringement lawsuit. Registration is required *prior* to bringing an infringement lawsuit. If you register in a timely manner, you are eligible for additional remedies in the event of a lawsuit. You may be able to collect statutory damages or attorney's fees. If you don’t have your work registered you are only entitled to collect actual damages.

Registering your work with the copyright office offers more robust legal options and routes for contact, but is not necessary for the protection of your work, as long as it is copyrightable.


In order to be copyrightable, a work must be:

  • Original (minimally creative)
  • Fixed (written down or recorded in some fashion)
  • Not of a type that is excluded from copyright protection

What is protected?

  • Literary Works
  • Computer software, databases and websites (eg. blogs)
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works (e.g. paintings, drawings, carvings, photographs, textile designs)
  • Architectural works (eg. buildings as well as blueprints, drawings, diagrams, models)
  • Sound recordings (eg. songs, music, spoken word, sounds, other recordings)
  • Audiovisual works (eg. movies, animation, TV programs, videogames)
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Dramatic works and accompanying music (eg. plays and musicals)
  • Types of copyrightable works (from

What is not protected:

  • Works that have not been fixed in a tangible medium of expression
  • Titles, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; listings of ingredients or contents
  • Ideas, procedures, methods of operation, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries or devices
  • Works that consist entirely of information that are natural or self-evident facts, containing no original authorship (such as a phone book or standard calendar)
  • Works created by the U.S. Government
  • Works for which copyright has expired (works in the public domain)
  • Examples and explanations of some non-copyrightable works

How long does copyright protection last?

For works published in 1978 and later, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. The copyright term for corporations (works for hire) is 120 years from creation or 95 years from publication, whichever is later.

Quick Reference Sources

Short Video Tutorials from the U.S. Copyright Office