Copyright Law


The purpose of a copyright is to protect the rights of the creator of an original work, in order to advance the progress of art and science. A Copyright owner has the "exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work, to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work, to distribute copies to the public by sale, rental or lease, the right to perform the work in public and the right to display the work in public."

Copyrights apply to the fixed expression of a thought or idea, but an idea itself is not subject to copyright. Similarly, copyright does not apply to purely factual information or procedures. It is the manner in which an idea is expressed in a fixed medium which makes it subject to copyright. This limitation on the scope of copyright is meant to protect the author's creative work, while advancing the free exchange of facts, information and ideas.

Under current law, it is not necessary to post a copyright notice or to register a copyright in order to enjoy legal protection for your original work. The significance of notices and registration are described below.

What Works are Subject to Copyright

A wide range of original works may be copyrighted, once fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Examples include:

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

Please note that mere ownership of a copyrighted work does not give you the automatic right to copy part or all of that work. If you are not the copyright holder, you are ordinarily limited to making one archival copy (reserved for your own use in case the original becomes damaged). Even where you make the outright purchase of an original work of art, the original artist may retain certain rights in the manner in which the artwork is displayed, and may through a contract of sale retain the right to reproduce the work - ownership of the original work alone won't necessarily entitle you to make or sell copies.

Some types of work are not subject to copyright.

Works which have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression are not subject to copyright. For example, a dance work that has never been notated or recorded, or a speech or performance that was not written and was not recorded, may not be subject to copyright.

Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices are not subject to copyright, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration of those ideas, systems and processes.

Utilitarian works: A purely utlilitarian work is not subject to copyright, as "utility" is not considered to be expression. Please note, however, that creative aspects of a utilitarian work remain subject to copyright. A belt buckle is a utilitarian item, but decoration on the belt buckle may still be copyrighted. Please note also that it may be possible to secure patent protection for an original utilitarian design.

Facts: Facts are not subject to copyright, no matter how difficult it may be for the person who has published a factual work to find and present those facts. Similarly, lists of ingredients are not subject to copyright. Please remember that the author's unique presentation of facts is still subject to copyright, even though the facts themselves are open to public use.

What Is The Significance of a Copyright Notice?

From the moment an original work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, copyright applies whether or not there is a notice of copyright affixed to the work. However, a copyright notice helps protect an original work by protecting against a claim of innocent infringement ("I didn't know it was copyrighted"), and by helping people who wish to license the work to find and contact the author. The notice should be affixed in such a way as to give reasonable notice of the claim of copyright. A proper copyright notice includes three elements:

  1. The symbol ©, the word "copyright" or the abbreviation "copr.";

  2. The first year in which copies of the work were published or distributed to others; and

  3. The name of the copyright owner.

In order to maximize your protections under international conventions, you should always utilize the symbol © in your copyright notices (or the symbol for sound recordings), and should also include the language, "All rights reserved".

Example: © 2002 John Doe, All Rights Reserved.

Registering a Copyright

If you take the additional step of registering your copyright, you will ordinarily be eligible for significant statutory damages if you can later that your copyright was violated subsequent to the date of its registration. For maximum protection, an original work should be registered within three months of its first publication. The fee associated with registering a copyright is usually quite low. In most cases, the forms required to register a copyright are available for download.

In the United States, it is necessary to register a copyright before commencing a federal infringement suit.

Derivative Works

A derivative work is based upon with work of others. For example, a compilation of pictures or articles is a derivative work. The creator of a derivative work cannot claim copyright in the work of others, but can claim copyright in any additional original expression associated with the compilation. Even where a derivative work is based purely on factual information, such as a database of addresses and telephone numbers, the manner in which the work is displayed may remain subject to copyright. Please note that the original copyright holder has the right to control the use of copyrighted work in somebody else's derivative work.

When Does Copyright Expire?

The question of copyright expiration is complicated by changes in the law, as well as variations of law between jurisdictions. In response to lobbying by major media companies, the U.S. Congress routinely extends copyright protection to works, as the copyrights are about to expire. For most works, the duration of copyright is life plus 70 years for individual authors, and 95 years from publication for corporate authors. If a work is produced by two or more authors, the duration of copyright is determined by the date of death of the last surviving author.

Foreign Protection

There are a number of international agreements which protect foreign copyright holders, the most significant of which is the Berne Convention.

When Is Copying Permitted

The copying of somebody else's copyrighted work is permitted under certain limited circumstances. The most significant exception to copyright, technically a defense against the accusation of infringement, is "fair use doctrine". This protects certain uses, largely in the area of comment, news reporting, teaching, and scholarship

Copyright © 2000 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Nov 7, 2014.