Inventions need patents in order to become products; and products need well-defined, well-defended copyrights. It’s important to know when an unauthorized use of your copyrighted material constitutes a violation.
Copyrights protect creative works in a tangible form of expression: artwork, photos, pictures, drawings, graphic designs; songs and recordings of all kinds; books, manuscripts, written works; plays, films, shows, and other performance art. Copyright takes effect as soon as a work is published; there’s usually no need to register with the US Copyright Office unless you plan or need to litigate violations–“unfair uses”–of your copyright.
Per the Copyright Act of 1976, there is no need to acquire permission to use copyrighted works for the purposes of criticism, commentary, journalism, education, scholarship, or research. This is called the fair use doctrine. Generally speaking, copyrighted works may be used without permission if the use constitutes a benefit to the public. There are limits to fair use, of course. It is a copyright violation, for example, to completely reprint a written work even for the purposes of criticism or commentary.
The key criterion of whether a particular use is “unfair” is if it negatively effects the market value of the original work. Copying a book word for word in order to criticize it would duplicate the book, devalue the original and penalize its author; thus, such a use would be unfair and the user subject to litigation for damages. Quotations may be extensive, but they cannot reprint the whole work. Making prints of a copyrighted painting as part of a commentary on its style or technique would likely be judged “unfair,” as it infringes on the copyright holder’s power to control the distribution of his or her work. Copyright violations may result in a cease and desist letter, or an infringement lawsuit, but they are not criminal or civil offenses in the US. A work that originates from a modification of copyrighted material is called a “derivative work” and is also entitled to copyright protection, provided it displays “originality.” That is, it cannot be a simple altered recreation of the original work; it must have distinct, unique features of its own.
Is it Public Yet?
The copyright laws are a tangled web and it’s not always easy to say when a work has left the briar patch and entered the public domain. A good rule of thumb is: works published before 1922 (this includes paintings, sculptures, scripts, books, photographs, phonographs, etcetera) are in the public domain. Works published between 1923 and 1963 have 95-year terms of copyright, provided they were renewed before their 28th year. You can search works registered in the United States since January 1, 1978 at http://copyright.gov/records/. All records prior to this are kept in hard copy and require a manual search; however, the US Copyright Office charges a statutory rate of $165 per hour to comb through the records.