Law, as learned for the bar exam, is different from law, as it affects everyday life. The current hubbub over the terms of service of Pinterest, a popular image-driven social network, provides a perfect "fact pattern" to illustrate the difference.
First, the creator of an original work (or the person who commissioned the work, if it's a "work for hire") automatically owns copyright in it, whether or not she registers the work with the US Copyright Office. Registering your work, of course, has its benefits, some of which are especially significant in the Pinterest example... but we'll get to that in a moment.
Copyright comprises several exclusive rights and powers pertaining to creative work. Often referred to as a "bundle of rights," copyright means the owner has exclusive rights to do the following:
- Reproduce the copyrighted work (make copies).
- Prepare derivative works.
- Distribute copies to the public.
- Perform certain kinds of works publicly (e.g., plays, dance routines, movies).
- Display the copyrighted work publicly (e.g., sculptures, paintings).
- Perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission (for sound recordings).
Source: 17 U.S.C., Ch. 1, § 106. (PDF)
Copyright inheres the moment I "fix my original work" in a "tangible medium," which might mean doodling my portrait on a napkin, taking a photograph, or typing my novel into my laptop. Electronic files are "fixed" for that purpose. Source: 17 U.S.C., Ch. 1, § 102. (PDF)
Here's where things get 'Pinteresting'
Let's say, I'm an entrepreneur who sells widgets. To market those widgets more effectively, I take attractive photos of them and post them on my website. A widget enthusiast who is unaffiliated with my business starts a pin board on Pinterest and "pins" one of the photos from my site.
For this example, let's assume that the enthusiast "pins" the image directly from my site, which means that the "pin" will link to the page that displays that photo on my site.