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What is a Copyright?

If you’ve ever drawn, painted, written, or otherwise created anything in your lifetime, you are a copyright holder. What exactly does that mean? What does a copyright do? 

Copyrights protect creative works

A copyright gives its owner the exclusive right to copy and distribute a creative work for a limited time. A creative work is a work that you have created in tangible form from your mind. The creative work may be in a literary, artistic, educational, or musical form. For example, a creative work can include writings, photographs, music, artwork, and videography.

Copyrights don’t protect ideas

A copyright protects the original expression of an idea in the form of a creative work, but not the ideas represented by the expression. 

Copyrights are automatic, but copyright registrations are not

There is an important distinction between a copyright and a copyright registration. Copyrights are automatically formed when a creative work is created, but copyright registrations are not. 

To obtain a copyright registration, a copyright application must be properly filed with the U.S. Copyright Office and receive the office’s grant of a registration. This application process is commonly handled by intellectual property attorneys due to its complexity.  An advantage of obtaining a copyright registration is that it allows the copyright holder to bring a federal lawsuit to protect their rights if needed.  

Statutory Damages v. Actual Damages

The result of a copyright infringement lawsuit can the the copyright registration holder acquiring statutory damages from the infringer. Such statutory damages were established as federal law through the Copyright Act. For copyright infringement cases, statutory damages can range between $750 and $30,000 for “innocent” infringement and up to $150,000 for willful and intentional infringement.

The possibility of statutory damages is valuable because it eliminates the necessity of actual damages. Actual damages can only be shown through economic loss, or loss of money in some capacity. Without a registration, a copyright owner must show actual damages. So, even if infringement has occurred, the copyright owner will not be able to recover unless he can show that he has suffered a financial loss as a result of the infringement. Actual damages can be difficult, complicated, and expensive to prove. The process involves lawyers on both sides going through extensive discovery of financial records and evidence which can get very expensive very quickly, and doesn’t necessarily guarantee recovery.

On the other hand, statutory damages will be awarded simply by showing that infringement exists, no financial losses necessary. So, copyright registrations are extremely valuable in protecting against infringement.

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