Ask Dr. CopyrightDear Doc:

You often write complicated articles about interesting and esoteric matters of intellectual property law. How about something at a more basic level that I can share with my children to help them understand what copyright is all about?


Loco Parentis


Dear Loco (and which among us parents is not loco from time to time?):

Sure, I’d be glad to help.  Here goes with the basic Q&A

1. What is copyright?

It’s a when the law recognizes that a person owns something that she creates that expresses an idea. This can be words, but it can also be pictures, songs, games, sculptures – just about anything creative.  As long as it’s original (meaning that you did not copy it from someone else) the law will help protect it.

2. How do I get a copyright?

That’s easy! All you have to do is get the idea out of your head and onto some medium (paper, a screen, an MP3 file, a lump of clay). Copyright protection is instant and automatic.

3. Do I need to put the © symbol on it to have a copyright?

Nope. You certainly may do that (or use the word “copyright” or the abbreviation “Copr.”) but you don’t have to. The law protects you even if you don’t (as long as you’re in the United States or one of the many countries that is part of the Berne Convention treaty.)

4. Do I need to register my copyright?

Not unless you (a) need to go to court to sue someone who copies your work without your permission or (b) want to be able to do that in the future and to also collect what your lawyer may charge to handle the case as well as have a judge decide how much money you will get from the person who illegally copied your work (that’s called “statutory damages”.)

5. How do I know if I am allowed to copy someone else’s work?

That’s a very difficult question, but there are some guidelines. First, if the date on the thing you want to copy is before 1923, then it’s called “public domain” because its copyright has definitely run out, and you can copy it all you’d like. There are other things that you can also copy that are newer, but knowing which they are requires some research to figure it out. You can always ask permission if you know who owns a copyright, but there are times when you can’t even figure that out (maybe the person who owned it moved away and did not leave a new address.)

6. Can I just copy things if I am using them for school work?

In general, the answer is “yes, but” – you should always put in a note that says where you got the things you copies – that’s called a “citation”. In school, we worry about “plagiarism” (saying that something is your idea when it’s not) which is like violating a copyright, but is more bad school behavior than a legal problem. When you “cite” you take care of plagiarism by giving credit for the idea to the person who thought it up. In most cases, if you copy something for school, you’re protected because you are doing something that is “fair” in using another person’s copyright, and the law allows you to do that.

7. Where can I learn more about copyrights?

Go to the Copyright Office web site:

More Questions for Dr. Copyright?

Hope that helps! If you have any other questions about copyright, trademark, patent, trade secrets, or other IP stuff, talk to one of the attorneys at LW&H. They know so much about this stuff that it will make you head hurt just to think about it (but please, think about it!)

Until next month,

The “Doc”

P.S. – The cheerleader uniform case that the Doc wrote about a few months ago was decided by the Supreme Court. You’ll be glad to know that the stripes, stars, moons, clovers and other stuff on the uniforms was determined to be a sculpture, separate from the uniform itself, and thus, protected by copyright. Now you know why those skimpy uniforms are so darned expensive: they’re sculptural works of art!

— Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.

*Originally posted on Apr 21, 2017