Components of Copyright Law

By Bernadette A. Safrath

Title 17 of the United States Code contains the country's copyright law. U.S. copyright law defines the types of works that can be copyrighted, rights granted to a copyright owner and duration of that copyright protection. Additionally, the law sets forth the procedure for filing a copyright infringement claim when a copyrighted work is stolen. Lastly, the law explains the circumstances in which a copyrighted work can be used without permission.

Copyrightable Works

A work can be copyrighted if it is original and "fixed in a tangible medium." This means it must be more than an idea and has the capacity to be seen or heard. There are eight categories of copyrightable works, set forth in Section 102 of U.S. copyright law. They include audiovisual works; works of art, including pictures, paintings, sculptures and graphics; sound recordings; dramatic works, including any music; works of architecture; literary works; choreography and musical works, including any words. A work does not need to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office to receive copyright protection. However, the copyright must be registered in order for the holder to sue for copyright infringement. Once you have registered the copyright, you can sue for any infringements that occurred prior to registration.

Owners' Rights

A copyright owner is granted several exclusive rights to his original work. Generally, the creator is the copyright owner. However, if a work is a "work for hire" commissioned by a third party, the copyright owner is the person who purchased the work, not the creator. Copyright protection is set forth in Section 106 of U.S. copyright law. Rights include the right to display or perform a work in public, the right to make copies of a work, the right to distribute or sell those copies and the right to create "derivative works" based on the original. A derivative work can be a sequel to a book or movie or the re-creation of the work in a different form, such as turning a book into a movie.

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Duration of Copyright

The duration of copyright protection depends on when the work was created, as well as who is considered the owner. First, if a work was created prior to January 1, 1978, the initial copyright period is 28 years from the date of creation. Additionally, a work's creator or surviving relatives are entitled to seek renewal for 67 years after the initial protection ends. For all works created after January 1, 1978, in which the copyright owner is the work's creator, the duration of copyright protection is the length of the creator's life plus an additional 70 years. If a work was a "work for hire" and the copyright owner is different from the creator, copyright protection lasts for 120 years from creation or 95 years from publication (if after the creation date), whichever date comes first.

Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement is defined as any violation of a copyright owner's rights. This can include distributing copies of a work without permission or claiming authorship of a copyrighted work without attributing credit to the creator. If a copyright owner feels his work has been misused, he is entitled to file a federal copyright infringement lawsuit. He will be entitled to damages if he can prove the infringer had access to his work, the work is substantially similar to his already copyrighted work and the infringer profited from the infringement. If the copyright holder is successful, the court will issue an injunction preventing any further infringement and order the destruction of all infringing materials. The copyright owner may also be awarded damages in the amount of any established loss of profits plus any profits earned from the infringing material.

Fair Use Exception

There is one exception in which a copyrighted work can be used without the owner's permission. The Fair Use exception permits a copyrighted work to be used for teaching, research, news reporting, or criticism (also parody) purposes. If a person is accused of infringement, he can attempt to claim fair use by showing his use was for educational or nonprofit purposes, the nature of his work is substantially different from the original, the amount of copyrighted material used is small and the copyright owner's profits will not be affected by his use of the work. What is considered a small portion of a copyrighted work is not defined under U.S. copyright law.

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Consequences for Breaking Copyright Laws


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How Are Copyright Laws Enforced?

A copyright for an original work of authorship gives the copyright owner a set of property rights. During the term of the copyright, the copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute copies of the work, prepare derivative works, and perform and display the work. A copyright owner also has the right to authorize others to use her work. Copyright laws prohibiting the unauthorized use of copyrighted works are enforced through civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions.

Punishment for Violating Copyright Laws

Copyright law provides the copyright holder with a legal monopoly on his original works of authorship. Such works include music, literature, art and even software algorithms. The rationale for punishing those who infringe copyrights is that infringement deprives copyright holders of the fruits of their labor, thereby providing an economic disincentive to produce such works in the first place.

Is There a Time Limit on a Trademark or Copyright?

The United States Patent and Trademark Office handles trademark applications, while copyright applications should be submitted to the United States Copyright Office. Trademark protection can continue indefinitely, as long as registration is renewed in accordance with the guidelines set forth in federal law. However, copyright protection has a limited duration.

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