What is Copyright and Why does it Matter?
December 13, 2020
The simplest definition of copyright is in the name itself. Copyright is literally "the right to copy." That means if you create an original work, or "intellectual property," be it a book or a screenplay or a poem or a painting, you and you alone have the right to make copies of that creation, unless or until you sell or assign that right to someone else.
In other words, only you can sell your work.
Additional information about copyright:
Copyright exists at the moment of creation. If you write original song lyrics on the back of an envelope, you own the copyright to those lyrics. If you sing an original melody to go with those lyrics into a tape recorder, you own the copyright to that tune. And if you type your novel into a computer, you own the copyright to that manuscript.
Copyright should not be confused with copyright registration.
Once you create your work, you own the copyright, which can then be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, online or by mail. What this does is provide you with additional protections in case your creation is stolen, otherwise known as copyright infringement.
Basically, if you register your copyright before the infringement, you can sue for statutory damages, whereas if the work is not registered, you may only be entitled to actual damages.
This is important because, as an example, if you write a song and someone steals it and makes CDs to sell but nobody buys them, there is likely no money to recover and no "actual" damages suffered.
But if you registered your copyright before the breach occurred, you can sue for statutory damages, or damages set by law, which in the case of copyright infringement is up to $150,000 per work infringed under federal law.
And for you aspiring screenwriters out there, registering your copyright is much better protection than just registering your script with the WGA. Copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus seventy years; WGA registration expires after ten years and does not afford the same protections under federal law.