The Best Starting Place for People New to Copyright

If you are new to copyright, there are many great guides on the internet, including this one here. However, for someone coming in with almost no understanding of how copyright works, it may not be the best place to begin.

The reason is fairly simple. Most guides, including my own, are geared toward helping people understand copyright within the context of the issues they dealing with. They aren’t meant to be complete overviews, just catch up guides for those interested in that specific topic.

If your interest in copyright is more broad, you need to be aware of the copyright circulars published by the U.S. Copyright Office. However, the circular of most interest is likely Circular 1, simply entitled Copyright Basics.

The guide is an amazingly thorough overview of copyright, written in a way to be understood by lay people and it includes nearly all of the important information one needs to know in just 10 pages and 4,000 words.

Best of all, since it was produced by the U.S. Copyright Office, which is part of the federal government, the work itself is in the public domain. This means that it can be freely copied, printed, shared, distributed without any permission from the U.S. Copyright Office.

This makes it great for classrooms, corporate environments and anywhere else where licensing for distribution might have been a problem.

In short, if you are new to copyright and looking to develop a better understanding of it, there’s no better place to start.

What it Includes

The document itself is very straightforward. It’s broken apart into multiple sections but, in the most broad terms includes the following:

  • What Works Are Protected by Copyright
  • What Those Protections Include and Don’t Include
  • Who the Copyright Holder Is
  • How Long Copyrights Lasts
  • What One Can do With a Copyright-Protected Work
  • Basics of Copyright Registration

If you’re either based in the United States or are interested in how copyright works in the United States, this is a great overview and it quickly dispels many of the copyright myths that still continue to plague the internet after decades.

Best of all, it’s written in plain language, making it very easy to understand, and offers references to other circulars for a deeper dive on particular topics if wanted.

As such, if all you are after is a general overview, this is likely the best place to begin.

What it Leaves Out

That said, the circular is not beyond criticism. This is especially true if you’re not interested in copyright from a U.S. perspective.

Though the circular touches on international issues some, much of the space of it is taken up with information about copyright registration. While there are definitely reasons that many creators outside the United States may want to register with the U.S. Copyright Office, it’s a fairly niche issue.

However, even when looking at it from a U.S. perspective, there are some elements missing. The largest, in my view, is any information about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The DMCA, which was passed in 1998, was a major revision to U.S. copyright law and, through its notice and takedown regime, is one of the most common ways individuals interact with the law. This makes it odd that there is no mention of the law (or any of its parts) in the Circular nor are there any circulars about it.

The U.S. Copyright Office does have an excellent page focused on the DMCA and provides good information there, but it’s not available in any of their circulars.

That is especially interesting since the Copyright Office operates the DMCA Agent directory, and Circular 1 was revised in September of last year.

In short, the circular is a great basic overview of copyright as it operates in the United States. But this omission is pretty glaring. Fortunately, it’s easily picked up elsewhere on the site.

Bottom Line

In the past I have been very critical of the U.S. Copyright Office, in particular the registration requirement in the United States if you want to actually file a lawsuit. It is unnecessary, no other country has it, it goes against the spirit of international treaties we are a party to and it burdens smaller creators or those that are not familiar with the requirement.

But that doesn’t mean that the U.S. Copyright Office doesn’t do many good things. These circulars are among the best things they do and Circular 1 is by far the most useful among those.

As such, if you are coming into copyright with almost no knowledge of the law and how it works, this circular is a great place to start. From there, one can easily drill down into either other circulars of more targeted interest or onto other guides in other places.

However, every journey has a first step and, for copyright, this is a great first step for nearly everyone.