Copyright Law

Copyright law protects 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,
  • to perform the work in public, and
  • 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. It is the manner in which an idea is creatively expressed in a fixed medium that makes it subject to copyright. Thus, copyright does not apply to purely factual information or procedures. This limitation on the scope of copyright is designed to protect an 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, although providing a formal copyright notice may give the copyright holder an advantage in the event of an infringement lawsuit.

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

Some types of work are not subject to copyright.

  • Works that 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 utilitarian work is not subject to copyright, as "utility" is not considered to be expression. At the same time, any creative aspects of a utilitarian work are subject to copyright. For example, although a belt buckle is a utilitarian item, decoration on the belt buckle may still be copyrighted. Even if a utilitarian work is not subject to copyright, it may be possible for its creator to secure patent protection for an original utilitarian design.
  • Facts: No matter how difficult it may be for the person who has published a factual work to find and present those facts, facts are not subject to copyright. Similarly, lists of ingredients are not subject to copyright.

Even though facts themselves are not subject to copyright, and facts are open to public use, it is important to remember that the author's unique presentation of facts is still subject to copyright.

What Is The Significance of a Copyright Notice?

From the moment an original work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, whether or not there is a notice of copyright affixed to the work, copyright applies. 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 copyright 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: © 2016 John Doe, All Rights Reserved.

Registering a Copyright

If you take the additional step of registering your copyright, you will normally qualify for significant statutory damages if you can later prove that your copyright was violated after 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, the forms required to register a copyright are available for download, and copyright applications may be submitted electronically.

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 by a variety of creators 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.

The original copyright holder has the right to control the use of copyrighted work in somebody else's derivative work. The creator of the derivative work may hold copyright to the any changes made to an original work, and to the compilation itself, but cannot legally distribute the derivative work in violation of the original creator's copyright. It is thus important for the creator of a derivative work to properly license any copyrighted material that will be incorporated into the 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

Once copyright attaches to a work, most nations will respect the copyright of a foreign creator. There are a number of international agreements which protect foreign copyright holders, the most significant of which is the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Work, which dates back to 1886.

When Is Copying Permitted

Mere ownership of a copyrighted work does not give you the automatic right to copy part or all of that work. However, the copying of somebody else's copyrighted work is permitted under certain limited circumstances. For example:

  • A consumer may normally legally record a live broadcast of an audio or video program for personal use.
  • A qualified archive may make one archival copy of an original work, which is to be reserved for the archive's own use in case the original becomes damaged.

Ownership of an original work alone won't necessarily entitle you to make or sell copies. That right must be explicitly acquired from the creator. 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.

The most significant exception to copyright, technically a defense against the accusation of infringement, is "fair use doctrine". that doctrine provides a defense against claims of copyright infringement, primarily 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 May 8, 2018.