What Automatic Copyright Laws Do and Do Not Protect

Two lawyers looking over paperwork for a copyright law case

Hero Images / Getty Images

Did you know that your works are automatically protected by U.S. copyright laws? As of January 1, 1978, under U.S. copyright law, a work is automatically protected by copyright when it is created. Specifically, “A work is created when it is “fixed” in a copy or phonorecord for the first time.”

While it is true that under United States law you have certain rights (copyrights) to anything you create that falls into the category of "forms of expressions" covered by copyright laws, this law should not be fully relied on for copyright protection or enforcement should you need to take civil action against a copyright infringer.

Additionally, there are many works that are not even covered under this automatic protection law so it is especially important that you understand the differences between copyrights, patents, and trademarks to make sure your slogans, logos, catchwords, and other forms of expression are protected. 

If you are unsure whether or not your works are protected, or how to register a copyright, it is best to talk to a copyright attorney.

The De Minimis Principle

What is the De Minimis Principle? The De Minimis Principle simply means “some things are just too small to be bothered with.”

This principle applies to many areas of law, including copyrights.

Published vs. Unpublished Copyright Protection

For automatic protection to exist, you do not have to register with the U.S. Copyright Office, or even have published your work. For unpublished works, however, there must be some form of tangible proof of when you created the “expression” or material, and that it is your creation. 

It should also be noted that if you do not formally register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office, your rights to take legal action against someone who uses your work without your permission will be very limited.

Automatic Protection Is Not Fool-Proof

Even with automatic copyright, anyone can contest your rights (or you may need to assert your own rights), so only you can decide whether or not something you created is worthy of formal copyright registration.

Internet plagiarism is very common, especially when it comes to photographs and written content. It is easy for someone to copy photos and content for their own use and simply say they created it first, when in fact they did not. You need to have some way of proving that you are the original creator of the work.

Formal copyright registration serves as more substantial proof that you are the creator (author) of something, and when you created it. Simply putting “Copyright 2018” on a website does not really prove that you actually created the material, and if so, when. 

How can you show something has copyright? How should you use the copyright symbol? What is the right format to indicate copyright? How can you check to see if something has copyright?

Some people think they can seal and mail something to themselves to establish proof of copyright. This practice is often referred to as the “poor man’s copyright.” It is anything but reliable, and may or may not offer evidence in a court of law should legal action result from your claim to ownership.

Ignorance Is Not a Defense Against Copyright Infringement

Sometimes copyright infringement is truly an act of ignorance, but copyright infringers can still be held liable if they take credit for things they did not create. 

Unless there was some significant harm done by another who used your works, it is generally considered best practices to send a cease and desist letter asking them to take down or stop using your works. Although this is not required by law, it may resolve the problem quickly without adding legal costs.

Sending Cease and Desist Letters Prior to Legal Action

If someone is using your copyrighted material and you want them to stop, send them a cease and desist letter. 

If this doesn't help, seek out an experienced intellectual property lawyer.