An Overview of Copyright
What is Copyright?
Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works. Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:
- To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords
- To prepare derivative works based upon the work
- To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
- To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works
- To display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
- In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.
It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of copyright. These rights, however, are not unlimited in scope. There are specific limitations on these rights established in the law. In some cases, these limitations are specified exemptions from copyright liability. One major limitation is the doctrine of "fair use."
What can be copyrighted?
A wide and diverse range of materials are protectable under copyright law. Books, journals, photographs, art, music, sound recordings, computer programs, websites, and many other materials are within the reach of copyright law. Also protectable are motion pictures, dance choreography, and architecture. If you can see it, read it, hear it, or watch it, chances are it is protectable by copyright law.
What cannot be copyrighted?
- Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded)
- Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents
- Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration
- Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources)
- Works published or created by the U.S. Government are not subject to copyright (the exception to this is if a work actually created for the U.S. Government by a third party, perhaps through a grant). Works by state or local governments can be copyrighted, however.
How long does copyright last?
The basic term of protection for works created today is for the life of the author, plus seventy years. In the case of “works made for hire” (explained below), the copyright lasts for the lesser of either 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation of the work. The rules for works created before 1978 are altogether different, and foreign works often receive distinctive treatment.
Do I have to register my copyright?
These many different works are protected under copyright if they are "original works of authorship" that are "fixed in any tangible medium of expression." In other words, once you create an original work, and fix it on paper, in clay, or on the drive of your computer, the work now receives instant and automatic copyright protection. U.S. Copyright law today does not require placing a notice of copyright on the work or registering the work with the U.S. Copyright Office as it did in the past. The law provides some important benefits if you do use the notice or register the work, but you are the copyright owner even without these formalities.
How do I know if something is copyrighted?
It is often safer to assume that something is copyrighted and proceed from there.