People see the little copyright sign daily, but do they ever stop to think what it really means? We see it in books, music or any published work as we go through our day. We might hear about copyright occasionally in news dealing with who really owns a certain piece of work, art or even a product.

Fortunately for small business owners, the federal government maintains a copyright system that enables everybody to profit from their own work. It gives creators or inventors legal control over how their piece or product is used. In fact, the copyright provides the broadest protection possible within the United States, protecting work so that it cannot be reproduced in any fashion without the express permission of the owner or creator who holds the copyright. Still, note that there is an end date for copyright protection — the author’s life, plus 70 years.

Copyrightable work includes literature, pictures, drawings, sculptures, musical scores, sound recordings, theatrical works, dance techniques or moves, any audiovisual (AV) work and architectural drawings. If the idea or product is not physical, it cannot be protected. The same goes for basic names, phrases and lists of commonly held information, like a phone book. It is important to note that ideas alone cannot be copyrighted, but an idea that has been written down or drawn out can be.

Copyright exists automatically for the creator. To help make that claim stronger, the creator of a work should include a copyright notice on it. This notice has three parts:

  • The word “copyright”
  • The year it was published
  • The creator’s name

If you’d like, you can register your work at the U.S. Copyright Office, which gives you a stronger claim if you ever encounter legal issues regarding your work.

In most cases, creators receive the copyright, but there are a few areas where someone else gets the cake. These cases involve work in which a person was explicitly hired to do that work. Those works are deemed “made for hire” and include portions of a larger literary work like a magazine, film, other AV materials or items like charts. If the work is translated, copyright also goes to the hiring entity.

The Copyright Act of 1976 gives a copyright owner several rights, including those of reproduction, distribution, the creation of adaptations and performance and display. With these rights, a copyright owner has the ability to decide how to profit from the work.

As a small business owner, you may have come upon an idea that you feel will be the next bestseller, and you want to be protected and make money on it. Begin the process of copyrighting your work by going to the U.S. Copyright Office at