Copyright Basics: What is Copyright Law?

What is Copyright Protected?

When Works Pass into the Public Domain

Copyright Court Decisions (summary)

 
Test Your Copyright Knowledge
What You Need To Know
Copyright protection exists from the moment a work is created in a fixed, tangible form of expression. The copyright immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work. Only the author, or those deriving their rights through the author, can rightfully claim copyright. In the case of works made for hire, the employer—not the writer—is considered the author.

The First Sale Doctrine
The physical ownership of an item such as a book, painting, manuscript or CD is not the same as owning the copyright to the work embodied in that item.

Under the First Sale Doctrine (Section 109 of the Copyright Act), ownership of a physical copy of a copyright-protected work permits lending, reselling, disposing, etc., of the item. However, it does not permit reproducing the material, publicly displaying or performing it, or engaging in any of the acts reserved for the copyright holder. Why? Because the transfer of the physical copy does not transfer the copyright holder's rights to the work. Even including an attribution on a copied work (for example, putting the author's name on it) does not eliminate the need to obtain the copyright holder's consent. To use copyrighted materials lawfully, you must secure permission from the applicable copyright holders or a copyright licensing agent.

Duration of Copyright
The term of copyright protection depends upon the date of creation. A work created on or after January 1, 1978, is ordinarily protected by copyright from the moment of its creation until 70 years after the author's death.

For works made for hire, anonymous works and pseudonymous works (unless the author's identity is revealed in Copyright Office records), the duration of copyright is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

For works created, published or registered before January 1, 1978, or for more detailed information, you may wish to refer to the public domain section of this guide or request Circular 15 ( "Renewal of Copyright"), Circular 15a ("Duration of Copyright") and Circular 15t ("Extension of Copyright Terms") from the U.S. Copyright Office Web site, www.copyright.gov.

Registration and Notification of Copyright
The way in which copyright protection is secured is frequently misunderstood. Copyright is secured automatically when the work is created and fixed in a tangible form, such as the first time it is written or recorded. No other action is required to secure copyright protection – neither publication, registration nor other action in the Copyright Office (although registration is recommended).

The use of a copyright notice is no longer required under U.S. law, although it is recommended. This requirement was eliminated when the United States adhered to the Berne Convention effective March 1, 1989. If a copyright holder wants to use a copyright notice, he or she may do so freely without permission from or registration with the U.S. Copyright Office. In fact, the use of a copyright notice is recommended because it reminds the public that the work is protected by copyright.

A copyright notice should contain all the following three elements:

  1. The symbol © (the letter C in a circle), the word "Copyright" or the abbreviation "Copr."
  2. The year when the work was first created.
  3. The name of the owner of the copyright.

Example: © 2005 John Doe

Public Domain
The public domain comprises all works that are either no longer protected by copyright or never were. It should not be confused with the mere fact that a work is publicly available (such as information in books or periodicals, or content on the Internet).

Essentially, all works first published in the United States before 1923 are considered to be in the public domain in the United States. The public domain also extends to works published between 1923 and 1963 on which copyright registrations were not renewed.

All materials created since 1989, except those created by the U.S. federal government, are presumptively protected by copyright. As a result, the chances are high that the materials of greatest interest to students and faculty are not in the public domain. In addition, you must also consider other forms of legal protection such as trademark or patent protection before reusing third-party content.

Public domain materials generally fall into one of four categories:

  1. Generic information such as facts, numbers and ideas.
  2. Works whose copyrights have lapsed over time or whose copyright holders have failed to renew a registration (a requirement that applies to works created before 1978).
  3. Works published before March 1989 that failed to include a proper notice of copyright.
  4. Works created by the U.S. federal government.

In rare instances, works may also be "dedicated" (i.e., donated) to the public domain.

Penalties of Copyright Infringement
By reproducing, republishing or redistributing the work of a copyright holder without permission, you may be violating or infringing on his or her rights under the Copyright Act.

If the copyright holder has registered the work with the U.S. Copyright Office prior to the infringement, the copyright holder may sue for compensation. Court-ordered compensation may include damages such as lost profits from the infringing activity or statutory damages ranging from $250 to $150,000, plus attorneys' fees, for each infringing copy. Even higher damages may be awarded if the court feels that the infringement was committed "willfully."

You may also be criminally liable if you willfully copy a work for profit or financial gain, or if the copied work has a value of more than $1,000. In these cases, penalties can include a one-year jail sentence plus fines. If the value is more than $2,500, you may be sentenced to five years in jail plus fines. Criminal penalties generally apply to large-scale commercial piracy.

"International" Copyright
There is no such thing as an "international" copyright that automatically protects a work throughout the world. However, the most widely-adopted copyright treaty, the Berne Convention, states that once a work is protected in one of the Convention member countries, it is protected by copyright in all of them. As of mid-2004, 156 countries, including the U.S., belong to the Berne Convention.

The Berne Convention further states that the scope and limitations of any copyright are based upon the laws of the country where the misuse of the copyright-protected work takes place (rather than the country where the work originated). For example, if you photocopy an article in the U.S., then U.S. copyright law applies to determine whether that copy was lawful. Similarly, if you digitize an image in the UK, the copyright laws of the UK apply to determine whether that digitized use is lawful.

There are grey areas, however, when it comes to the online usage of copyright-protected content. For example, if an article is uploaded in the U.S. and then viewed on a Web site in Australia, where is the "copying" taking place – and is more than one "copy" being made? Courts in the U.S. and around the world have yet to provide definitive answers as to what country's laws should be used to determine online copyright infringement in this case. To avoid a potential legal challenge from the copyright holder, many institutions follow a policy of "when in doubt, obtain permission" in these situations.