Copyright Rules & Time Limits

by Phil M. Fowler

U.S. federal laws provide the basis for copyright rules and time limits. The general purpose of copyright law is to encourage and protect artistic and literary creativity by giving artists and authors legal protection over their creations. However, because the general public also has an interest in acquiring the right to use those creations, copyrights do not exist in perpetuity.

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Automatic Protection

Copyrights can exist without any type of approval or certification from a government agency. Federal copyright laws provide automatic copyright protection over any creative expression that exists in tangible form, for instance, copyrights cover paintings, illustrations, poems, songs, books, presentations, photographs, videos and more. The creator of a tangible creative work has an automatic copyright in the work.

Right of Exclusion

A copyright is a right of exclusion, which means the owner of the copyright has the legal ability to exclude all other people from using, altering, reproducing or distributing the copyrighted material. An author of a book, for example, has the exclusive right to revise the book or sell the book as the author sees fit. Nobody else can revise the book, reproduce the book or distribute the book, whether for profit or not, without the author's permission.

Copyright Infringement

Violation of a copyright, called infringement, can result in both civil and criminal penalties. A civil penalty results when the owner of the copyright sues the violator for money damages. In order to sue a violator, however, the owner must register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. The person who violates the copyright may then be liable and required to pay money to the copyright holder, even if the copyright holder did not actually suffer damage from the violation. Similarly, criminal copyright infringement can arise from violations, regardless of whether there was any actual damage or monetary gain from the violation. The FBI investigates, and the Department of Justices enforces, the rules regarding criminal copyright infringement.

Expiration of Copyrights

Copyrights do not last forever. The life of a copyright for creative material produced or published after 1977 is the life of the author plus 70 years. In other words, the copyright lasts for as long as the author remains alive and for an additional 70 years after the author dies. Of course, the author can relinquish the copyright or grant specific exceptions to the copyright at any time.

Fair Use

Reproduction of copyrighted material is allowed in some cases and has come to be known as "fair use." Generally, copyright infringement does not occur if the copyrighted material is used for educational, civic, religious or charitable purposes. Small portions of a work may be quoted in scholarly materials or to illustrate a point, criticize or review the work or in a parody. How much of a work can be reproduced is unclear. The U.S. Copyright Office suggests seeking permission whenever fair use is unclear.