No matter how brilliant your ideas are, you can't copyright an idea. Copyright applies to your ideas once they've been given finished form: a painting, a novel, a piece of software or an architectural blueprint. Copyright is automatic and free once you complete the work. If you register it with the government, it costs from $35 to $400.

Once you create a work in "fixed" form, which can include a digital creation, you acquire copyright. This is automatic, costs nothing and doesn't require you publish or show the work. Having copyright gives you several exclusive rights:

  • You can reproduce the work or authorize other people to do it. 
  • You can sell, rent, lease or lend copies of your work.
  • You can make derivative works based on the original. Nobody but J.K. Rowling has the right to write Harry Potter sequels, for instance.
  • You have the right to perform and show your work publicly; for example, a dance, play or motion picture.
  • You have the right to display your work if it's a painting, drawing, photograph or sculpture. This right also applies to images from a movie.
  • You can authorize someone else, such as a publisher or music company, to make and sell copies of your work. 

If someone pirates your movie or offers digital downloads of your book without your authorization, that violates your copyright.

What Can You Copyright?

Copyright applies to multiple types of creative work:

  • Literary works.
  • Musical works, including lyrics.
  • Dramatic works, including music.
  • Choreography of dance works.
  • Paintings and sculpture.
  • Movies.
  • Sound recordings.
  • Architectural designs.
  • Boat designs.
  • Computer software.

You can't copyright ideas, methods, procedures, concepts or discoveries. It's also impossible to copyright facts, but you can copyright the form in which you express them. A list of ingredients for a recipe isn't copyrightable, for instance, but the written instructions in your cookbook may be.

Why Register a Copyright?

You acquire copyright for free, but you have to pay to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration requires filling out a form, paying the copyright fee and submitting a copy of the work. You can usually do this online, but some material, such as vessel or mask designs, requires a hard-copy submission.

If, say, someone sells bootleg copies of your new DVD, you can't sue for damages unless you've registered the copyright. Registration also serves as solid proof that you own the copyright, even if the other party says you don't.

At the time of this writing, there's a $55 copyright cost to register online. However, if you're filing for one creative work and you're the only copyright holder, it only costs $35. Paper filings have $85 copyright fees.

Some special categories have a higher copyright cost. A mask design costs $120 to register, and vessel designs cost $400.

Some things can't be copyrighted even in finished, completed forms. High on the list are titles and names, whether of books, songs or bands. Phrases and slogans are off-limits too, as are familiar symbols and designs, or minor design variations such as different coloring.

If you want to copyright a logo or name, you're in the wrong intellectual property arena. You can't copyright them, but you might be able to trademark them.

Trademark is a literal term. Trademark law protects names, phrases and symbols that you use in trade to mark your brand and your products. Nike's swoosh symbol is one example: Everyone who sees it on a shoe knows that it's a Nike product.

To trademark a name, symbol or slogan, you have to use it, or plan to use it, to identify your business and products. It has to be distinctive rather than generic: Apple works as a trademark for computers, but an apple seller couldn't trademark the word "apple."

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has detailed information online about how trademark law and registration works.