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Copyright: Copyright Overview

What is Copyright

What is Copyright?

Copyright is part of U.S. federal law that covers various forms of “intellectual property.” When a work is copyrighted, the author has certain legal rights giving him or her exclusive authority over when and how that work can be copied, distributed, performed, or recorded. Copyright may protect any of the following works of authorship:

  • Written Works
  • Still or Moving Images (including sculptures)
  • Choreographic works and pantomimes
  • Audio works
  • Architectural works (including a physical building, drawings, or architectural plans)
  • Other original works of authorship, such as a computer game or computer software

Copyright protection applies only if a work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression,” such as a written document, sound recording, painting, film, photo, or software program. The medium may be electronic, such as a computer file, an e-mail, or a Web page.

For works created after 1977, it is not necessary for a copyrighted work to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office or to bear a copyright notice in order for it to be protected by copyright, as long as it is an original work of authorship fixed in a tangible form. For example, a poem is protected by copyright whether it is handwritten on a napkin, typed on a page, or stored on a computer. In the case of a sculpture or other artwork, the work’s tangible form might be stone, clay, metal, canvas and paint, film, etc.

Some works cannot be copyrighted, even if they are fixed in a tangible form. Lists, tables, and representations of factual data cannot be copyrighted. Ideas cannot be copyrighted. Titles, short phrases (like slogans), and names cannot be copyrighted either, although sometimes they may be protected by trademark law.

Copyright also applies to “derivative works.” For example, a movie based on a novel would be a derivative work. Only the author of the novel would have the right to prepare or authorize a screen adaptation of the story. Parody is not considered to be a derivative work, so it is not necessary to obtain permission from a copyright holder before creating or performing a parody of that author’s work.

Copyright is a complex area of law, and the above is just a brief overview. The following Web sites go into more detail:

How long does Copyright last?

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

For works created in the year 1978 and after, copyright protection exists from the moment the work is fixed in tangible form and lasts for the span of the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. After that, the work is considered to be in the “public domain,” and copyright protection no longer applies.

Works published before 1923 are in the public domain. For example, the novel Oliver Twist was published in 1837, so it is now in the public domain. That means anyone can make or publish copies of it without violating copyright. Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night, painted in 1886, is also in the public domain, and therefore can be copied. For example, a company might reproduce and sell posters of Starry Night without any special permission.

Works created or published from 1923-1977 have varying rules. The following two tools make it easy to find out duration of copyright for works produced during that time frame:

Works by the U.S. Government or by its employees as part of their work are in the public domain.

Copyright Compliance

What is Copyright Compliance?
Copyright compliance means that any person who wishes to copy, distribute, or perform a copyrighted work or portion of a copyrighted work has either:

  1. Obtained permission from the copyright holder, or
  2. Determined that permission is not necessary because the use falls within the parameters of “Fair Use.”

Copyright infringement is a failure to comply with copyright law. It a crime that is punishable by fines and prison terms.

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