This hilarious video of James Dorden’s Carpool Karaoke with First Lady Michelle Obama featuring Missy Elliott was one of my favorite things on the Internet this summer. It also got me thinking about the importance of protecting the creative works developed and made by entrepreneurs, entertainers, and other people. 

One of the songs performed in this Carpool Karaoke episode is “Get Ur Freak On,” which includes the line, “copywritten, so don’t copy me … .” Watching this made me think about how misunderstood copyright law is. So, I figured I’d take a few moments to break down the basics.

Copyright law is basically designed to protect things that are #1 considered “works of authorship” (”WOA”), #2 are original, and #3 are fixed. A WOA, in the legal sense, is something that falls within one of the following categories

  • literary works;
  • musical works, including any accompanying words;
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  • pantomimes and choreographic works; (5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • sound recordings; and
  • architectural works.

You can always make an argument that other things should also fall within the WOA definition. Sometimes this is successful (like with computer programs), other times this is not (like with flower gardens).

For a WOA to be considered original under the second requirement, this typically requires independent creation (no copying from someone or something else) and a minimal degree of creativity.

For a WOA to be considered fixed under the third requirement, a person must be able to see or experience it for more than a momentary or fleeting duration. For example, a bubble created with bubble soap and a wand probably isn’t fixed due to its very short life span. The same could be said for a freestyle or improv performance that isn’t written down or recorded anywhere else.

Once an item meets all three requirements, the creative work is automatically protected - voila! There is no need for a © symbol, registration with the Copyright Office, or the use of a “poor man’s copyright.” Shocking, right? Using the © doesn’t hurt, and registration provides certain benefits that you don’t get unless you register your work. The poor man’s copyright does nothing but waste a stamp and envelope.

A copywritten work provides its creator with several benefits, including the right to say to others, in Missy’s words, “don’t copy me.” If someone does copy a work illegally, the copyright owner is entitled to certain monetary relief.

So there you have it. Though there are thousands of exceptions to this basic explanation, Missy is certainly right that copyright law can go a long way in protecting musicians and other creators.