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The most basic level of copyright protection is automatic - the moment you produce a tangible work of art or other intellectual property and do not release your copyright to others, you are protected under US copyright law. That means the moment you write sheet music or record a song even with your laptop on your kitchen table, or paint a painting, or print a photograph, you have created a piece of intellectual property that is protected under copyright law.
While it is no longer necessary under the terms of the Berne Convention which governs international property law, you can place the copyright symbol (©), followed by your name, on any material which is considered protected by copyright, and you have the right to do this yourself without any further registration. The only exception is sound recordings, where the rules are the same but the symbol is (℗) which stands for Phonogram. Using the Phonogram symbol is indeed recommended when distributing recorded material which is protected by copyright law, such as when you submit a recording of your original musical composition to a producer for consideration or advice.
The registration is needed is when you want to secure distribution rights, such as when you record a full album or when you make prints of your original artwork for sale or even as promotional material. When you register your copyright through the U. S. Copyright Office, you are protecting yourself against violation of your copyright by securing the rights to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement. It also provides you with proof of copyright, so that no one can claim that you have infringed on someone else’s copyright by presenting copies of their works. It also protects against copying abroad because the U. S. Customs Service has the power to stop the import of goods that infringe upon U. S. copyrights.
However, if you are just creating a work of intellectual property for private use or exhibition, or if it is a preliminary work that needs to be refined, such as a first draft of a novel or first performance of a musical work, there is usually no need to register your copyright. Simply writing the © or ℗ symbol on any surface of the work or on its packaging, such as on the back of a canvas or on a CD-ROM or DVD, will suffice in most cases until mass distribution is being considered.
Contacting an attorney who specializes in intellectual property rights is the best way to clear up any misunderstandings regarding copyright law, as well as to obtain advice regarding how, when, and why to register.
Aurelia Mitchell Durant, Esquire
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