Creative Works You Can and Cannot Copyright

Copyright symbol in cloudy sky
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Any time you (or your business) create something tangible, you should consider whether you can or should seek an official registered copyright to protect your work.

A copyright is ownership of an intellectual property that:

  • Is an original creation
  • Exists in a tangible form, such as a book, DVD, or recording
  • May or may not be published
  • Falls within the U.S. Copyright Act and other copyright laws

Technically, your work is copyrighted "the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device," according to the U.S. Copyright Office. However, registering your copyright with the government gives you legal grounds to file a lawsuit, and thus stronger protection.

Not every type of original work can be copyrighted, however. Here is a general explanation of the types of works that are generally allowed or not allowed copyright protection.

Creative Works That Can Be Copyrighted 

  • Literary works, including computer programs and other "compilations"
  • Online writing, such as a blog or series of articles 
  • Musical works, including lyrics
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works (if they have been recorded)
  • Pictorial works (includes maps and architectural plans), graphics, sculpture
  • Movies and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

All works must be preserved in some tangible form in order for the owner to copyright them. Publication is not necessary for a copyright, but your work must somehow be preserved or be able to be reproduced, to be copyrighted.

The U.S. Copyright Office says you should consider this list in its broadest meanings. It's almost impossible to list all the specific types of works that can be copyrighted.

What Cannot Be Protected

  • Works that are not fixed in some tangible form of expression. For example, if you give a speech and it isn't recorded or written out, you can't copyright it.
  • Titles (including book titles), names, short phrases, and slogans. (You may be able to trademark or service mark these)
  • Familiar symbols or designs, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring
  • Mere listings of ingredients or contents (but a recipe with instructions or directions can be copyrighted)
  • Typefaces, page designs, and layouts
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration
  • Works that are "common property" and have no original authorship, for example, standard calendars, tape measures and rules, height and weight charts, lists, or tables taken from public documents or other common sources
  • Works that are in the public domain, for which the copyright has expired (this usually refers to works published before 1923)

Copyrighting Websites and Domain Names

You can copyright original authorship on a website, including the artwork, logo, writing, photos, videos—basically anything on your website that can otherwise be copyrighted. Domain names are not protected by copyright law, nor is a website as a whole. When you register a copyright for online content, you must copyright each item under the specific media type that applies (e.g., a piece of music, a literary work, etc.).

Since the website as a whole is not treated as a copyrighted entity, you must think of every piece of content individually. Yes, this means you must continually update your copyright every time you add new content, whether in a blog post or new artwork. When you first publish your website, you may be able to get an exception and copyright each type of material as a whole, but from then on, each new item must be registered on its own.

As to what is or is not allowed to be copyrighted, the same basic rules apply for website material as for other forms.