What Can Be Copyrighted? A Look at Acceptable Categories of Intellectual Property

    While it’s commonly believed that any passing thought or idea can be copyrighted, there are specific criteria in order for something to be eligible for this type of protection.

    One important one is that it must be “fixed in a tangible medium”—written down, typed, tracked, or otherwise recorded; it can’t just be an idea. Another is that it has to have “original authorship”—it can’t just be an exact copy of something else (though it can be based to virtually any degree on something else).

    What does this mean? Ideas cannot be copyrighted; blank schedule books or calendars cannot be copyrighted;

    What types of works can be copyrighted?

    Let’s look at the categories of acceptable copyrighted material laid out in the Copyright Basic’s circular.

    Literary Works

    Copyrighting a Literary Work

    Copyrighting a Literary Work

    Literary works include works like:

    • books
    • magazines
    • e-books
    • website copy
    • brochures
    • articles
    • studies

    To register a literary work for copyright protection, you will need to submit a copy, either electronically or physically—although if your writing has been published in book or other physical form, and that is considered the “best edition,” you’ll need to submit two of them through the mail.

    Sound Recordings

    Copyright law (title 17 of the US Code) defines sound recordings as, more or less, exactly what it sounds:

    “Works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds, but not including the sounds accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work.”

    If it doesn’t include movie sounds, what does it include? Specifically, recordings of:

    • music
    • speeches
    • dramas
    • lectures

    Note that “sound recording” refers to the recording itself, not the physical object containing it.

    Musical Compositions

    Copyrighting a Composition

    Copyrighting a Composition

    A piece of music may not have been recorded in audio form—but that doesn’t mean it can’t be recorded in other ways that render it eligible for copyright protection. In fact, many instrumental pieces might never be recorded in audio form and be intended only for performance. In these cases, sheet music might be the only physical version of the composition.

    While an audio recording can be submitted to the US Copyright Office for registration as the deposit copy, sheet music on its own is acceptable. Just make sure to provide one copy of the sheet music—or two copies, if it’s been published.

    Motion Pictures / Audiovisual Works

    With movie copyrights, it’s important to keep in mind the “fixed in a tangible medium” requirement we touched on earlier, because the point at which a movie becomes eligible for copyright protection is an important one.

    The copyright office’s publication, “Copyright Registration for Motion Pictures, Including Video Recordings,” offers this on the subject:

    Only the expression fixed in a motion picture (camera work, dialogue, sounds, and so on) is protected under copyright. Copyright does not cover the idea or concept behind a work or any characters portrayed in it. Live telecasts that are not fixed in copies and screenplays or treatments of future motion pictures do not constitute fixations of motion pictures.

    Of course, as with any copyright, a movie’s copyright protection is automatic once the work—in all of its components, as described above—has been secured in a tangible medium.

    Dramatic Works

    Dramatic works may be published or unpublished and may include or not include music—but to be copyrighted, there must be a record of it.

    It’s also important to keep in mind that, as with any copyright, neither titles of works nor underlying concepts can be protected by a copyright, and that an outline or brief description of a dramatic work (storyboards for a movie, for example) is not sufficient to copyright the entire piece.

    Pantomimes and Choreographic Works

    Choreography and pantomime are both similar in that they involve physical dances or movements. And they don’t have to be videotaped in order to be protected—they just need to have been “fixed in a tangible form of expression from which the work can be performed.”

    Radio and Television Presentations

    As long as a recording was made of any live broadcast, it can be protected by a copyright; a physical copy must exist of the presentation to claim protection.

    Works of the Visual Arts

    This category includes “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works,” both two-dimensional and three-dimensional.

    Some works, such as photographs or paintings, are obvious—but there are a few you might not expect. A few surprises from the Visual Arts category [list taken from the “Copyright Registration for Works of the Visual Arts” circular] include:

    Copyrighting a Sculpture

    Copyrighting a Sculpture

    • advertisements
    • sewing patterns
    • jewelry designs
    • games/puzzles
    • dolls
    • lace designs/tapestries
    • toys
    • sculpture
    • artificial plants/flowers
    • maps/globes
    • fabric design

    In order to be officially registered, either an exact copy of the work (or a photocopy of the work, in the case of a 3-D sculpture) must be submitted to the copyright office—two, if the work has been published.

    Architectural Works

    Building designs (with “buildings” defined as structures that are not mobile and are habitable by humans) can be protected by a copyright as well.

    And the building doesn’t have to have been built, provided the architectural plans have been drawn; this fulfills the “tangible form of expression” requirements.

    Do I have to register my copyright?

    No—registration is not required in order for works to be protected under copyright law.

    However, official copyright registration offers certain benefits, including the ability to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement.


    The USCO’s policies and registration procedures are subject to change at any time. Please visit copyright.gov to verify any information.

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