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A Guide to Copyrights, Trademarks and Patents in Print and Beyond


A copyright is the protection of original authorship for all intellectual works. A copyright goes into effect the moment your work is created into a tangible form. This means that it protects the person who wrote the material and states that the material belongs to them. A copyright can apply to anything that is written. Did you know everything from poems and books, drawings and songs, to artwork and computer programs can be copyrighted! Did you know copyrights can also apply to movies?

If you're looking for an easy way to explain copyrights to kids, the website Copyright Kids is perfect!

A copyright is a form of protection to authors that gives the author the sole ownership of their work. This means that the author alone has the right to make copies of the work, unless the author grants permission to other people. It also protects the author and the work from others who wish to take characters or other parts of it and create new works from it. This is called derivative works. The copyright also protects distribution rights, public performance, and public display rights. For all of these rights the author must give permission for these things to happen. Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act of 1995 set up a system that helped the writers and musicians of songs to be compensated for the work that is used in digital formats.

Authors' right is the right of the author to choose whom they will share their work with. (Why Authors' Rights and Copyright Matter) It allows authors to protect their works, and to make a profit from them. In the digital age, it is becoming more difficult for authors to protect their works. Many schools are working out deals with authors that allow them institutional licenses to use their work in a particular school.

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Do you know the difference between a copyright and a patent? A patent protects ideas and discoveries, which a copyright does not do. A patent is a form of intellectual property that gives the owner the sole right to their invention. A patent excludes others from making, using or selling their invention. You can learn more information at the United States Patent and Trademark Office about patents.

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What about trademarks? A trademark is a form of intellectual property that is made up of a sign, symbol, design, or expression that identifies a product, brand, goods or services. Trademarks are protected by intellectual property rights.

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What is the public domain? The public domain refers to creative materials that are not currently protected by copyrights, trademarks or other patent laws. The United States has copyright agreements with many different countries around the world. These agreements mean that the United States respects their copyright laws and they in return will respect the United States laws. When an item is in public domain, it means that people can access it for free. They can also change or perform the work in the ways that they want to.

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What is fair use? Congress adopted the fair use doctrine in order to allow use of copyrighted materials in certain circumstances; mainly if they are considered beneficial to society. There are four factors the government uses to determine if something is considered 'fair use'. Quoting the U.S. Copyright Office Fair Use Index, these factors are as follows:

  1. Purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work
  3. Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. Effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

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Copyright infringement is considered criminal. The result of the lawsuit is usually a fine that is paid by the person who broke copyright. Currently the most common form of copyright infringement is pirated music or movies. People may go to jail if they have copyrighted material and then sell it to others for profit. Generally, if the infringement is solely for personal use, a heavy fine is issued to the person who is deemed responsible in the matter.

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