Many people do not understand copyright protection and ownership because they believe that works must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to be considered protected. In reality, it is advisable to copyright your work through the Copyright Office, but it is not required in order to establish ownership over the work itself.
An example of this is webpages. Although most websites are not registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, they are still protected under common copyright law. Most will have the © copyright symbol at the bottom of the page, which tells visitors that the work is their own, and is not to be used by anyone else.
The Internet age has encouraged that this sort of copyright protection be examined under a microscope because litigation has been brought up in the state and national courts concerning right of protection and ownership.
Simply put, copyright ownership belongs to the person or entity who created the work. The author of an article owns the copyright over the article until he or she sells it to a magazine. At that point, one-time or serial rights can be negotiated, but until contracts are signed and money exchanges hands, copyright ownership belongs with the creator.
Common law copyright ownership pertains to such works that are not registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, but are still protected by the owner. The copyright symbol (©) does not have to be present in order for common law copyright to be effective, though this certainly helps delineate what is yours and what is not.
By definition, a copyrighted work is any work of original authorship placed in fixed and tangible form. This could apply to a personal journal, a website, a book, a magazine article, or files on your computer. If you created it, and you have written it down, then it’s yours, regardless of federal registration.
There are problems, however, when it comes to three things: (1) Interviews; (2) Collective Works; and (3) Unpublished Works.
In the case of an interview, common copyright law will generally apply to any spoken words or mannerisms given for the intent of publication or recording by another. For example, in the case of Falwell v. Penthouse International, Reverent Jerry Falwell gave an interview that was subsequently sold to Penthouse International. He later sued because he claimed that he never gave express consent for the interview to be published, but he lost because it was proven by the freelance journalists who took the interview that Falwell did agree to the interview.
When it comes to collective works, the common copyright law will favor the author because the publisher has copyright standing for the entire work, but not over each individual piece therein. Common copyright law generally favors the original author or creator unless other arrangements are made in writing.
And in the case of unpublished works, there is a fine line because each case is radically different. For example, let’s say that you have written a story that is stored in your files on your computer. Your roommate discovers the story and believes that it is wonderful, so he or she sells it to a magazine. Later, you decide to sue for copyright infringement.
In this case, as in any other, you must be able to prove that you wrote the story and that it was in your possession.
Common copyright law is dangerous in many scenarios, and it is important that you go to necessary lengths to protect your work. Registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office is the most prudent step because it solidifies your ownership. If this is not possible, make sure that whoever sees the work understands that you own the rights.