Six Things to Know About Copyrights

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Copyright GraphicThere are plenty of myths and confusion around copyright law. Many people aren’t sure what a copyright covers and how it differs from other types of intellectual property (IP) protection like patents or trademarks. Although a blog is too short to go into all the specific details of copyright law, we hope to hit a few key highpoints here and help clarify what a copyright is and its function.

  • A copyright differs from a patent or trademark in that it protects an original work of authorship. A patent protects inventions or discoveries and a trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services.

  • In the United States, under the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C §§ 101 et seq) computer programs are literary works and may be filed as such, meaning that software is often protected via a copyright.

  • You do not need to register or publish your work to gain copyright protection. A work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. A copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems or methods of doing something. A copyright would protect the expression of the idea or concept.

  • The term of a copyright work depends on other factors. As a general rule, the life of a copyright is the author’s life plus 70 years, meaning the copyright will expire 70 years after the author’s death. For an anonymous work, pseudonymous work, or work made for hire, the copyright term is 95 years from the year of its first publication or 120 years from the year of its creation. For works published before 1978, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act, as the terms can differ.

  • Know who owns the copyright. The copyright belongs to the author as soon as the work is created. Paying someone(s) to create a work (for example to code software) does not guarantee that you will own it. Although “work made for hire” makes ownership by an employer the default, not all commissioned work of software qualifies as “work made for hire.” To avoid issues or confusion, it is best to clearly state a work was made as “work for hire” in a contract.

  • The fair use doctrine permits the use of limited portions of a work for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports. There are no legal rules permitting the use of a percentage, specific number of words, or certain number of musical notes of a work.

If you are unsure or have any questions regarding intellectual property, it is best to consult your technology transfer office, we would be happy to meet with you, or an IP attorney. You can find more information regarding copyright law at the United States Copyright Office’s website,