What’s Covered by Copyright?

By Lia Kopin-Green
/
November 15, 2022

Copyright refers to the legal ownership of certain types of intellectual property. Simply put, copyright can be defined as the right to copy. According to copyright law, only the original creator of particular works as well as anyone with authorization is allowed to reproduce that work. Moreover, in order to qualify for copyright protection, works must be original and fixed in a tangible form.

United States intellectual property law states that copyright protects “original works of authorship.” But what does that actually mean in reality? In this article, we'll discuss some of the most common types of works that can be protected by copyright.

Literary Works

Suppose you have written a beautiful poem that you want to protect from infringement by other authors. You may want to consider copyright protection for your poem. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, copyright law protects an extremely wide range of literary works, including books, newspaper articles, blog posts, essays and poems. Moreover, since the term “literary works” includes any work “expressed in words, numbers, or other verbal and numerical symbols,” computer codes and software also fall under this category.

Musical Works

Copyright laws protect musical works, including both the musical notation and accompanying words. As long as a song is original and fixed in tangible form, such as on sheet music, a tape or on a computer, it is copyrighted. It is not necessary to register musical works with the U.S. Copyright Office, although doing so is highly recommended. 

Songwriters might be experts when it comes to writing lyrics and creating melodies, but they may not be aware of the legal aspects relating to musical composition. This is when it can be especially helpful to work with an experienced copyright attorney. 

Dramatic Works

Almost all dramatic works are covered by copyright, including plays, operas, TV or movie scripts, and screenplays along with any accompanying music. In other words, whether the work is performed on stage or on film, directly before an audience or indirectly “by means of any device or process,” it can be protected by U.S. copyright laws. The law protects the original creator of these works by prohibiting others from reproducing the copyrighted work, preparing derivative works based upon the copyrighted work and performing the work publicly, including by means of digital audio transmission. 

Choreographic Works and Pantomimes

This category relates to the protection of works that include “the composition and arrangement of dance moves and patterns, usually accompanied by music.” This includes dances, ballets, and mime performances. In order to qualify for legal protection, the work must be expressed in a tangible form, such as through photographs, video or written descriptions. 

It should be noted, however, that there are several limitations involved in this category. Popular dance steps are not included in this type of work. Further, social or cultural dances cannot be copyrighted.

Pictorial, Graphic and Sculptural Works

United States intellectual property law safeguards pictorial, graphic and sculptural works, such as paintings, drawings, maps, sculptures, photographs and digital illustrations. Any two or three dimensional works of arts that are expressed in fine, graphic and applied art are eligible for copyright protection. 

The Copyright Act restricts the protection of utilitarian aspects of such works. This means that the design of a useful object typically cannot be safeguarded by copyright law. The pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work must have a component that is separable and capable of independently existing from the useful object it may depict.

Motion Pictures and Audiovisual Works

Movies or other audiovisual work that “consists of a series of related images accompanied by sounds that are shown by machines such as projectors and viewers” are covered by copyright law. Online videos, television shoes, video games, animations and slideshows are also included. The work must have a visual component to qualify as a motion picture or audiovisual work. Nevertheless, having an audio component is not a necessary requirement. Therefore, a silent movie would still be covered by copyright law.

Sound Recordings

Certain sound recordings are included in copyright laws when they are considered a fixation of a series of musical, spoken or other sounds but do not accompany a motion picture. Common examples of sound recordings are audio recording of a person singing a song or playing a musical instrument, a group of people hosting a podcast, and a person reading a book or delivering a lecture. A person speaking, water flowing, a bird singing or other sounds from the natural word can also be copyrighted, assuming that the recording contains a production authorship aspect. 

Architectural Works

As defined by U.S federal law, architectural works refer to the “design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans or drawings.” The architectural work must be humanly habitable with intent to be both permanent or stationary. Examples of work that fall under this category include houses, apartment buildings, office buildings, churches and museums. Copyright also preserves unconstructed architectural works in the form of unpublished plans or drawings.

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