Fixation represents the fundamental condition that the doctrine of copyright provides protection only for ideas that have been memorialized in some tangible fashion. This acts to distinguish between ideas by themselves and expressions of those ideas. By extending copyright protection only to the tangible expression of ideas, the law imposes a threshold level of development that must be met—ideas that remain in a creator's head or have only been communicated orally cannot enjoy the protections that copyright provides. It is only once they have been expressed in a way that they can be perceived by others in something other than a purely transitory nature that they cross the threshold.

The law is not at all restrictive on the form that the tangible expression must take. It is this flexibility that permits new kinds of structures—like those that might be made at a nanometer scale—to be entitled to copyright protection. In addition, provided that the other copyright requirements are met, it is the moment at which the expression becomes "fixed" that the copyright becomes established. This is a significant difference from patent rights, which require the satisfaction of considerably more formalities in order to be established.

There is, in particular, no requirement that any government body be notified of the work; once the expression is fixed, its creator has the right to identify it as subject to copyright protection. The law does often provide a number of inducements to encourage the registration of copyrighted works, the most notable in the United States being the requirement that there be a registration with the copyright office before an infringement suit can be filed. But this registration may be made at any time during the life of the copyright; the registration of copyrights does not implicate the same kinds of notice functions that the issuance of patents do.

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