Copyright protects your original work of expression, such as an article, website, software, cookbook, song or a painting from unauthorized use by others. You get the exclusive rights to sell, display, reproduce your work, and sue those that infringe on those rights. Generally, copyright for works made after January 1, 1978, lasts for 70 years after the creator’s death. 17 U.S.C. § 302 (a). For works made for hire, the copyright lasts the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation. Works published under a pseudonym or anonymously are protected for 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation, whichever is first. 17 U.S.C. § 302 (c). Under the current law, it is not necessary to publish a work or display the copyright symbol in order to obtain copyright.
Your exclusive rights notwithstanding, sometimes others can use your work without your permission, as long as it constitutes “fair use.” Fair use is usually limited to educational, newsworthy, criticism and commentary purposes. For example, somebody may freely summarize or quote a short passage from your article to illustrate a point. Big part of the recent SOPA and PIPA controversy was about where to draw the line in the fair use category. Websites such as Wikipedia rely on free use of others’ content; SOPA and PIPA would place certain restrictions on what copyrighted materials such websites could legally include as part of the “fair use.”
You must register copyright in order to bring a lawsuit for infringement in federal court. It’s best if you register within three months of the date of publications or at least before the alleged infringement happened. U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress registers copyrights. If you register, you may recover up to $150,000 in a lawsuit even without proving any actual monetary damages. Copyright Office records are public, which means anybody has access to them.
If you file online, you will receive a certificate within a few months. Paper filings could take a year. These time frames presume you’ve done everything correctly when you filed. Seek qualified counsel for assistance.
International copyright protection
There is no uniform international copyright law that will automatically protect your copyright throughout the world. However, your copyright will be protected in most of the countries in the world because U.S. has treaties and conventions with most, yet not all, of the countries in the world to honor each other’s citizens’ copyrights. For a complete and current list of such countries, see U.S. Copyright Office Circular 38a, International Copyright Relations of the United States.