The first example of copyright law in the United States came in the Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which stated that all authors would be granted exclusive rights to their respective writings in order to promote the expansion of general knowledge. As time progressed other works of art were added to copyright law such as paintings, designs, music, and photographs. The history of copyright law since then has shown us that the term “writings” was not to be limited to written documents. The Copyright Act of 1976 determined that “works of authorship” include literary, musical and dramatic works; pantomimes and choreographic works; pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works; motion pictures and other audiovisual works; sound recordings; and architectural works. See 17 U.S. Code § 102.
Literary works refer to works “expressed in words, numbers, or other verbal and numerical symbols regardless of the nature of the material objects, such as books, cards, or manuscripts”. Musical works refer to any music and accompanying lyrics regardless of how it is transmitted, whether it is through sheet music or a vinyl record. Dramatic works refer to a story that is portrayed through dialogue and acting and has a direction in its story and performance. A dramatic work is copyrightable regardless of whether it is performed on stage or in film. Pantomimes and choreographic works include “the composition and arrangement of dance moves and patterns, usually accompanied by music”. They do not, however, include social or cultural dances. This type of work is copyrightable through fixed tangible means such as photographs and written descriptions. Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works simply refers to any two or three-dimensional works of art that are expressed in fine, graphic, and applied art, including photographs, maps, and actual sculptures. Motion pictures and audiovisual works refer to the movies you have come to know and love along with any other work that “consists of a series of related images accompanied by sounds that are shown by machines such as projectors and viewers. Sound recordings refer to works that are a fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds but do not accompany a motion picture. Sounds recordings can be expressed through any tangible means such as disks or tapes. Architectural works refer to the “design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings. See 17 U.S. Code § 101.
With this vast expansion on the term “writings”, it begs the question as to what all of these types of work have in common. The way any type of work is classified as a writing under copyright law is that it meets three requirements: originality, expression, and fixation. The term “originality” refers to the originating source of the work, not to any specific standard of value. For a work to be deemed original, its expression must have originated with the author and must not have been copied from any other source. The term “expression” is used to limit what is copyrightable as opposed to expand on it. The Copyright Act specifically states that it protects actual expressions, not the ideas, concepts, or procedures that go into these expressions. Therefore, copyright protection only extends to the unique, tangible elements that the author has contributed to the work. The last term “fixation” follows on the expression factor by requiring any copyrightable work to be “fixed in a tangible medium of expression”, meaning it must be in a tangible, permanent state that would allow it to be reproduced or communicated.
With the wide variety of works that can be copyrighted, it is important to understand whether you have the legal ability to copyright your work and protect it. If you are in the process of copyrighting your work, or you believe someone may be trying to copyright your own work, you should consult an intellectual property attorney to learn your rights.
Source: Yadegar, Minoofar & Soleymani LLP