Everything you need to know about how to copyright your video

Over the years, the U.S. Copyright Office has modified its rules for registering literary works, software, musical works and accompanying words or lyrics, dramatic works, pantomimes and choreographic works, pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, motion pictures and other audiovisual works, sound recordings, and architectural works. The right to protect such works is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution under Article I, Section 8, clause 8, which gives Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Of course, at the time the Copyright Office was created in 1800, the materials that could be protected did not include software, motion pictures or even sound recordings. The Copyright Office became a separate department of the Library of Congress in 1897. As technology developed, the Copyright Act has been and continues to be amended to include more and more types of protectable works. Copyright is an important piece of video production and the law.


Originally, the term of copyright protection was 14 years, which could be extended an additional 14 years. Due to changes in the law, in most of the 20th century a work could be protected for 28 years once a copy of it — a “fixed copy,” as opposed to a delivered speech, for example — was deposited with the Copyright Office and a notice was affixed to the work. The registration could be extended an additional 28 years when the holder filed appropriate papers in the Copyright Office during the 28th year after registration. The notice includes the word “Copyright” or the abbreviation “Copr.” or the encircled c symbol © and the creator’s name and year date.


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Simplifying the process

Congress made very significant changes to the law in 1976 that became effective on January 1, 1978. Under this most recent law, protection is less complicated than under earlier laws and procedures. The U.S. copyright law is more compatible with the law of most other countries now.

The creator of the material needs no longer deposit a copy of the work in the Copyright Office and, in fact, no longer has to affix a notice to the work at all, although it is advisable to do both. When you register your work, you will then have the ability to claim statutory fees for infringement (up to $150,000) against an infringer without showing actual damages. In fact, in order to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement, you must have your material registered.

When you register your work, you will then have the ability to claim statutory fees for infringement (up to $150,000) against an infringer without showing actual damages.

The copyright term is no longer 28 years and is no longer renewable. Under the present law, the term is measured from the author’s life plus 70 years. Representative Sonny Bono is credited with amending the Copyright Act which had stated copyright duration was the creator’s life plus only 50 years.

Therefore, even if you do not register your video in the Copyright Office, it is now protected under federal law for your life plus 70 years.

International protection

Copyright protection, unlike patent or trademark protection, is not territorial; it is international. The Berne Convention is an international treaty for countries that participate in it. Today, in addition to the United States, 167 countries are parties to the Berne Convention: 167 United Nation member states plus the Holy See. The Berne Convention requires its signatories to treat the copyright of works of authors from other signatory countries at least as well as those of its own nationals.

In the U.S., that means another party is legally prevented from reproducing, distributing, displaying or performing the protected work, or from making another work derived from the copyrighted work (i.e., derivative works) without permission of the holder.

A registered copyright is therefore one of the best legal bargains available. Worldwide protection for your work is available for $35.

Old myths die hard

One of the techniques people used before the 1976 Copyright Act, in order to save the $6.00 copyright registration fee at the time, was to mail themselves the material they wished to protect and not open the envelope when the post office delivered it to them. They believed — erroneously — that such a process would constitute copyright protection. Ironically, although that process was not effective then, it can be effective now to help prove in court that an unregistered work was created at a certain time and, therefore, if another party had access to the material, infringed copyright rights at a later time.

What is required now to prove copyright protection, if you do not have an official registration from the Copyright Office, is your date of creation of the work. Accordingly, various date-stamped mechanisms can help prove your date of creation, such as YouTube videos, email correspondence with attachments, etc.

Needless to say, however, registration is the preferred method to establish your copyright rights. A registration can be applied for online for $35. You can access the Copyright Office website in order to register your work through the library of Congress site, www.loc.gov or directly at www.copyright.gov.

Mark Levy has been contributing articles to Videomaker magazine since 1988. He is past president of the Amateur Movie Makers Association and has won awards internationally for his short films and videos. He practices intellectual property law (patents, trademarks, and copyrights) in Evergreen, Colorado.