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Intellectual Property

Guide to Intellectual Property: What Is a Copyright?

Do you know the value of your ideas? For emerging creators, innovators and entrepreneurs, intellectual property (IP) knowledge is just as important as inspiration, but it might not be as easy to find. At the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF), we’re committed to helping all innovators build their understanding of IP and preparing them to exercise their rights as creators.

Concepts related to IP can seem complex and confusing so we’re here to help. To provide you with an introduction to IP, NIHF is publishing a “Guide to Intellectual Property” blog series that will break down the basics, help educate even the youngest innovators on the value of IP, and get you on the right track toward bringing your ideas to market safely and successfully. First, let’s take a look at copyrights.

What is a copyright?

Copyright law is meant to give the creator of specific work the rights to decide what others can do with their work. For example, if you have created work like a book, a musical composition, a photograph or other creative work, a copyright will give you legal ownership and protection of what you’ve created, so no one else can take your work and use it as their own.


What can be protected by a copyright?

Copyright examples are all around us! Work that can be protected by copyrights include but are not limited to:

  • Literary or other written works
  • Musical compositions and lyrics
  • Dramatic works like plays
  • Choreography
  • Visual artwork like photographs
  • Hand artwork like paintings or sculptures
  • Architectural work
  • Sound recordings
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual work


Who can own a copyright?

In the United States as well as in most other countries, anyone who produces work automatically owns the rights to what they’ve created, unless they are working for someone else, such as their employer, who will own the copyright.

Though you are not required to register your work with the United States Copyright Office, it’s a good idea to do so, especially if you will be selling what you’ve created. By registering your copyright, you will make it much easier to prove what you have made truly belongs to you.


What is fair use?

Fair use is an exception to copyright rules that allows others to use just a small portion of others’ work. For example, if you write a book, others may use a quote from your book for their review, research paper or newspaper article.

However, if someone uses your work in a way that is not covered by fair use, such as copying your work without permission or promoting your work as their own rather than giving you credit, this is called copyright infringement and is punishable by law.


What is the difference between a copyright and a trademark?

We’ve all seen both copyright (©) and trademark (™) symbols, but many of us are unsure of the difference between the two. Both offer IP protection, but the key to understanding copyrights versus trademarks lies in identifying what is being protected. While copyrights protect creative work like writing or art, trademarks protect the kinds of IP associated with company brands, such as a logo or slogan.

You can learn more by reading the next blog in NIHF’s IP series, which will cover all the basics of trademarks.

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