The information provided below is based on United States law. If you live in another country, we’d love to hear in the comments how your laws differ or agree with our own.
1. What is copyright? The exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, rent, reproduce, derive from, display, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same. Copyright protects the tangible expression of ideas (such as manuscripts, paintings, recordings), but not the ideas themselves.
2. What types of copyrighted material will an editor or agent encounter? Mostly literary, musical, dramatic, and pictorial works.
3. When does a work become copyrighted? As soon as it becomes a tangible creation. In other words, as soon as it becomes perceptible to the human eyes, a device, or machine. Or more exactly, as soon as it is written, painted, etc.
4. How long does copyright last? The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the creator plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1,Copyright Basics.
5. Do I have to renew my copyright? No. Works created on or after January 1, 1978, are not subject to renewal registration. As to works published or registered prior to January 1, 1978, renewal registration is optional after 28 years but does provide certain legal advantages. For information on how to file a renewal application as well as the legal benefit for doing so, see Circular 15, Renewal of Copyright, and Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright.
6. What is “fair use”? The doctrine that brief excerpts of copyright material may, under certain circumstances, be quoted verbatim for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research, without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder.
7. Why would I want to register a copyright? In cases where plagiarism or theft are suspected, a certified or registered with the government copyright helps clarify the legal owner.
8. How can I obtain a “registered” copyright? To register a work, submit a completed application form, a nonrefundable filing fee, which is $35 if you register online; and a nonreturnable copy or copies of the work to be registered. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Registration Procedures.”
9. Who owns a “work for hire?” The owner of a publication owns the copyright to all work done by full-time staff in the course of their daily jobs, and to outside work for explicitly stated purposes. To see what types of agreements you should sign, please visit: http://writinginwonderland.blogspot.com/2010/12/what-rights-should-you-offer.html
10. How do I know what is in the “public domain” and no longer “copyrightable”? No U.S. copyright granted before September 19, 1906, can still be in effect; all renewals and extensions will have expired under the old law. Works copyrighted between September 19, 1906 and December 31, 1977, were entitled to a 28-year protection, plus one 28-year renewal. For works copyrighted since then, refer to #4.
11. How do I find out when a work was registered with the Copyright Office? At your request, the Copyright Office will search its records, for a fee.
12. What about international copyrights? See what copyright claim appears on the work itself. If there is a foreign copyright, find out if the nation in question and the United States practice reciprocal respect of one another’s copyright. The U.S. copyright Office can help.
For more help answering copyright questions, please visit: http://www.copyright.gov/