A Guide to United States Copyright Law

Copyright is the principle of law granting exclusive rights of use to any publishable work, or product, to its creator, who is known as the copyright holder. In the United States, the rights reserved to the copyright holder are defined in the Copyright Act of 1976, as amended, and specified in Title 17 of the United States Code. The provisions of the copyright law are also extended, with minor modifications, to the international markets by American participation in the Universal Copyright Convention.

What materials may be protected by copyright?

Title 17 of the US Code, section 102, extends copyright protection to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”

What are the rghts of the copyright holder?

Copyright holders are granted the exclusive right to reproduce their copyrighted work and to create other works that derive from it; the right to sell or rent their work to the public; and the right to display or produce their work.

How long is a work protected by copyright?

Any work copyrighted in the United States is protected for the life of the author, plus 50 years. If, for example, you write and publish a book and live until 2061, the copyright continues (held by your estate) until 2111. Also, the estate of a deceased author may apply for an extension of the author’s original copyright within one year of its expiration date.

Under what conditions can a copyrighted work be used by another party?

Under a provision of section 107 of the Copyright Act known as the “fair use” clause, portions of a copyrighted work may be used for purposes such as critical reviews of the work, citing it in news items, or within another copyrighted work. For most other purposes, permission must be obtained from the copyright holder. It is also common practice to clearly identify copyrighted material contained within another work.

Must a work be registered with the government to receive copyright protection?

A work is technically covered by copyright as soon as it, or any portion of that work, is created. Most authors will add the words Copyright 2010 by Jane Smith (year and name here examples only, obviously) to a work prior to its publication to clearly state that the author alone claims credit for the work.

Section 408 of the Copyright Act sets forth the procedure by which a work can be registered with the United States Copyright Office. Practically all authors and/or creators will register their works as a protection against future legal actions related to copyright infringement.

What are the rights of an author or creator who creates a work for another party or during the course of employment?

Generally, if a work is created while in the employment of another, the employer becomes the legal copyright holder, although this topic is currently undergoing intense legal scrutiny and debate. Most, but not all, of these situations are defined in either a job description or in signed contracts of employment.