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Copyright Basics: US Copyright Law

The term "copyright" actually refers to a bundle of rights created and protected by federal statute (17 U.S.C. § 101 et.seq). It includes the exclusive rights to reproduce, sell, distribute, perform, display, and license the original work or derivative works. The owner of these rights can give away, sell, or license any or all of them on either a temporary or permanent basis.

Useful Copyright Resources

UNCG Copyright Ownership and Use Policy

Copyright.gov:
Official website of the United States Copyright Office. Includes the full text of U.S. copyright law.

Copyright and Fair Use from Stanford University Libraries:
Includes news on recent copyright cases and decisions and very detailed copyright overview.

Copyright at Wayne State University:
Includes a fair use checklist.

Cornell Copyright Information Center

Copyright and cultural institutions by Peter Hirtle

What can be copyrighted?

Original works "fixed" in a tangible medium (e.g., paper, canvas, magnetic tape, digital recording, etc.) may be copyrighted including:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural work;
  • Motion picture and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

You CANNOT copyright an idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery. (However, some of these might be patentable.)

How can a copyright for an original work be obtained?

It is essential to understand that copyrights are now automatically conferred by law at the moment the work is "fixed." An infringer may be enjoined from publishing the work even without any formal notice of copyright. However, prior notice and registration with the U.S. Copyright Office are necessary in order to sue an infringer for damages and attorneys fees. The preferred notice is given by affixing the copyright symbol ["©","(c)", "Copr."], date of first publication, and name of the work's owner.

How long does a copyright last?

The duration of a copyright varies greatly depending on the year in which it was created or published. The law has been amended several times, most recently in October of 1998. Currently, a copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. If the work is created for someone else (a "work made for hire") or if it is anonymous or pseudonymous (i.e., a pen name), it lasts for 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first. Publication includes loaning, leasing, selling, or giving away copies of the work.

Once a copyright expires, the work enters the "public domain" and may be used freely by anyone. The author may also put the work into the public domain before expiration of the statutory period by expressly saying so.

For more information, see this chart from Cornell University.

What are the penalties for copyright infringement?

The penalties include payment of actual damages, costs and attorneys fees, fines of up to $100,000 (for willful violations) and, in egregious cases, criminal prosecution leading to imprisonment for up to 5 years.

For more information on this subject, see Cyberspace Law for Non-Laywers.

More information

 

Disclaimer: This site presents copyright guidelines and resources but should not be considered legal advice.