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  • Writer's pictureCassandra L. Wilkinson

U.S. Copyright Basics

A Copyright is defined to be an “intangible, incorporeal right granted by statute to the author or originator of certain literary or artistic productions, whereby he is invested, for a limited period, with the sole and exclusive privilege of multiplying copies of the same and publishing or selling them.”1
In the United States (U.S.), a Copyright is a form of protection provided for by the U.S. Constitution which states “The Congress shall have Power… To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors… the exclusive Right to their respective Writings”2 and is granted under federal law.3
A Copyright is a way of protecting the creativity of authors where the term “authors” includes both individuals and owners of “work made for hire.”4
Copyrights protect "original works of authorship" which can be seen by the naked eye (such as books, drawings, pictures, and sculptural works) or seen or heard by use of a machine or device (such as choreographic works, pantomimes, movies, music, video games, and computer programs).5
No publication or registration is required to obtain Copyright protection. Copyright protection automatically applies to original works of authorship when they are created,6 but Copyright registration does provide the following benefits: (1) establishes a public record of the Copyright claim;7 (2) allows filing an infringement suit;8 (3) establishes prima facie evidence in court of the validity of the Copyright if registered before or within five years of publication;9(4) allows Copyright owner to obtain statutory damages and attorney’s fees in a court action if registration is made within three months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work;10 and (5) allows Copyright owner to record registration with the U.S. Customs Service for protection against the importation of infringing copies.11
The use of Copyright notice is no longer required under U.S. law.12The use of Copyright notice is important as it advises the public that the work is protected by Copyright protection. Proper Copyright notice includes three elements: (a) the international Copyright symbol “©” or the word "Copyright" or the abbreviation “Copr.”; (b) the year of creation (or publication) of the copyrightable work; and (c) the name of the owner of the Copyright.13 A proper Copyright notice would be as follows:
© 2008 John Doe Copyright 2008 John Doe Copr. 2008 John Doe
The law of Copyright balances the rights of the author to control and make money from his creations against the rights of the public to the free flow of information and ideas. Present Copyright law provides that a Copyright, in most works, will last the life of the author plus 70 years.14 In anonymous and pseudonymous works and works made for hire, the Copyright lasts 95 years from the year of its first publication or 120 years from the time of its creation, whichever expires first.15After that time, it belongs to everybody and nobody in particular. The work is then said to be in the public domain.
Copyrights protect only those works that are "fixed" so they can be seen or heard for more than a fleeting time.16 If you write a play on paper, then the play is "fixed" and is immediately given Copyright protection. Performance of the play without the author's permission is an infringement of the Copyright. If you perform a play that is made up spontaneously, that play is not "fixed" and does not have Copyright protection. Some things are not copyrightable such as ideas, procedures, methods of operation, systems, concepts, principles, or discoveries.17
The author immediately becomes the owner as soon as his work of authorship is created. If the author wishes, he or she can transfer (give or sell) by written agreement all the rights in his work to another person or company.18 The author also has the right to sell copies of his or her creation without transferring Copyright ownership itself.19
The Copyright owner does not have complete control over his work. He does have "exclusive rights" on how the copyrighted work will be used. These “exclusive rights” include: (1) making copies; (2) making "derivative" works based on the copyrighted work (such as making a movie based upon the book written by the author); (3) selling, renting, or lending copies to the public; (4) public performance; and (5) public display.20
The Copyright law also limits the owner's exclusive rights. Those limits to the owner's rights include "fair use", some library photocopying, some performances, and some display. Copying some of a work without permission may be legal if the use of the work is for criticism, news reporting, teaching, or research.21
In order to obtain the broadest protection for copyrightable works, the author should consider Copyright registration and should include a Copyright notice on their works.
1. Black’s Law Dictionary 2. United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8 3. Title 17, United States Code (17 U.S.C.) 4. 17 U.S.C. § 101 5. 17 U.S.C § 102 6. 17 U.S.C. § 201 7. 17 U.S.C. § 410(a) 8. 17 U.S.C. § 411 9. 17 U.S.C. § 410(c) 10. 17 U.S.C. § 504(c) & 505 11. 17 U.S.C. § 602 12. 17 U.S.C. § 401 13. 17 U.S.C. § 401 14. 17 U.S.C. § 302(a) 15. 17 U.S.C. § 302(c) 16. 17 U.S.C. § 101 17. 17 U.S.C. § 102(b) 18. 17 U.S.C. § 201(d) 19. 17 U.S.C. § 202 20. 17 U.S.C. § 106 21. 17 U.S.C. § 107 & 108
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