Copyright law in the United States, as throughout the world, protects the expression or artistry of a work fixed in some tangible medium, as on paper, film, canvas, magnetic or optical storage, computer fixed memory, or the like. Also, some added forms of creativity, as boat hulls and printed circuit mask works, are also protected by the US copyright law.Transient creations, as ballet performances and spontaneous orations, are not copyrighted unless simultaneously recorded, previously annotated or otherwise written down, or the like. Copyright law does not protect ideas or concepts, but only fixed and completed expression and artistry, and does not protect against independent creation by one not having access to the original. Most any original and creative work, beyond “sweat of the brow” collection or arrangement of information (as, a telephone directory), is subject to a copyright claim by the author or artist or his/her assignee. Although marking a claim to copyright (as with the circle-C mark ©) is helpful, it is no longer required; it is best to consider all printed, recorded, etc. matter as protected unless it is expressly in the public domain or very old, as first published before 1923.
Registration of a US claim to copyright provides some advantages in recordation and proof of existence of the copyright right. Completed registration is generally required before a suit can be filed against an infringer, although in some federal court Circuits filing an application for registration suffices. Such registration requires filling out and submitting a proper one of many simple applications from the US Copyright Office, on-line (at www.copyright.gov) or in paper form depending on the type of work (non-dramatic work, visual art, map, sound recording, etc.), and a fee of from $35 (on-line) to $65 (paper). A US registration can provide rights in many countries of the world, although some (as in South America) also require the “all rights reserved” notation in addition to the © notice.
Copyright protection lasts a long time in the US – the life of an individual author (or the last surviving one if there are several individual authors) plus 50 years, or, now, 95 years from creation by a work made anonymously, or under a pseudonym, or for hire, as in the course of employment. Determination of the expiration of copyright for current works is quite complex – see for instance www.publicdomainsherpa.com/calculator.html. Recent amendments to the copyright law have prevented works from the time of creation of Disney’s Mickey Mouse character onward from having their copyrights expire.
Fair use, educational uses, and like concepts also impact copyright rights and limits. The US copyright law, being the product of intense, lengthy negotiation and competition among strong, beligerant, and disparate interests, is incredibly complex, so every individual situation – whether use of prior material, or receipt of a cease and desist letter – must be thoroughly vetted by qualified counsel.