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short phrases, refining oil, compact disc, trademark law, major industries

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Copyright, branch of law granting authors the exclusive privilege to reproduce, distribute, perform, or display their creative works. The goal of copyright law is to encourage authors to invest effort in creating new works of art and literature. Copyright is one branch of the larger legal field known as intellectual property, which also includes trademark and patent law. Copyright law is the legal foundation protecting the work of many major industries, including book publishing, motion-picture production, music recording, and computer software development. These industries account for considerable economic activity in the United States, making copyright law a field of enormous economic importance.

Not every work of authorship is eligible for copyright. To qualify for copyright protection, a work must be both fixed and original. The law considers a work to be fixed if it is recorded in some permanent format. Acceptable ways of fixing a work include writing it down, storing it on a computer floppy disk or compact disc (CD), recording it on videotape, or sculpting it in marble. If a poet thinks of a new poem and recites it to an audience without writing it down, copyright does not protect the poem because it is not fixed. To be original, the work must not be copied from previously existing material and must display at least a reasonable amount of creativity. For example, if an author writes the words “the sky is blue” on a piece of paper, copyright does not protect the words because they lack sufficient creativity. Consequently, short phrases and titles are usually not protected by copyright, but in some circumstances they may be protected by trademark law.

Copyright only protects the words, notes, or images that the creator has used. It does not protect any ideas or concepts revealed by the work. If, for example, a scientist publishes an article explaining a new process for refining oil, the copyright prevents others from copying the words of that article. It does not, however, prevent anyone else from using the process described to refine oil. To protect the process, the scientist must obtain a patent. Similarly, if a novelist writes a book about a man obsessed about killing a whale, other people may write their own books on the same subject, as long as they do not use the exact words or a closely similar plot.


Schechter, Roger E., B.A., J.D.

Professor of Law, The George Washington University. Author of "Intellectual Property: The Law of Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks" and "Unfair Trade Practices and Intellectual Property".

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