About Copyright Laws for Movies

By David Carnes

A copyright provides a legal monopoly on an original work of authorship, allowing the copyright holder to sue anyone who uses his work without authorization. Copyright protection applies to any work of art, including movies. Copyright law is governed primarily by the U.S. Copyright Law; with a few exceptions, the law prohibits state governments from legislating in this area. International copyright protection is available under several international treaties.

What Triggers Copyright Protection

Any time you produce an original work, it is copyrighted from the moment you reduce it to a tangible medium, with no need for formal registration. A movie, for example, is copyrighted the moment it is filmed, and the film make may sue anyone who infringes on that copyright. Although copies of your work need not include the copyright symbol or other notice of copyright, notification helps deter infringement and prevents the infringer from arguing that his act was unintentional. Lesser damages may apply in cases of unintentional infringement. With or without notification, you may formally register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. Although registration is not required in order to trigger copyright protection, it does confer a number of legal benefits. Registration helps to prove who actually authored the work and allows copyright holders to claim statutory damages of up to $150,000 per infringement without proving actual damages. Although U.S. copyright law includes a complex system of copyright expiration dates, works created in 1978 or later by individuals, as opposed to corporations, are protected for 70 years after the death of the author.

Copyright Conventions

Several international copyright conventions exist, including the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and the Universal Copyright Convention. Almost all of the world's nations are members of at least one of these two conventions. Under these treaties, members agree to extend reciprocal recognition to works protected under another member nation's copyright laws.

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Three major exceptions exist to copyright law -- the fair use exception, the first sale exception and the work-for-hire exception. The fair use exception allows anyone to use a small portion of a copyrighted work for a socially beneficial purpose such as education or criticism. For example, a movie clip a few seconds long used in an educational video may be considered fair use depending on a number of factors present in specific cases. The legal boundaries of how much use of another's work that could be considered "fair" are blurry, and the fair use exception is narrowly applied. The first sale exception allows you to, for example, sell a second-hand DVD without having to pay royalties to the copyright holder -- the copyright holder is entitled to royalties only on the first sale of a particular copy. This exception doesn't apply to downloading movies from the Internet, because downloading requires the creation of an additional copy. The work-for-hire exception allows an author to contractually abandon his copyright in favor of his employer. Under this exception to the copyright laws, Hollywood movies are generally owned by studios rather than by screen writers or producers.


Pirating occurs when someone makes and sells unauthorized copies of a copyrighted work. U.S. law provides several remedies for acts that constitute copyright piracy. These remedies include seizure of the illegal copies, injunctions against further production or distribution, civil fines and criminal penalties. The U.S. applies these laws extra-territorially, meaning that you can sue an infringer in a U.S. court for an act of piracy that occurred overseas. A copyright holder may, for example, sue a foreign company for pirating DVDs overseas and collect the amount of damages assessed from the infringer's U.S.-based assets.

Fan Fiction

"Fan fiction" refers to works that integrate individual characters from copyrighted works into a new and otherwise original work. Fan fiction is considered infringement because the law gives copyright holders a monopoly over adaptations of their work as well as the original work.

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Song Lyrics & Copyright Laws


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Pros & Cons of Copyright Laws

A copyright is a legal monopoly, granted by the federal government, that allows the creator of an original work of authorship to prevent others from using, displaying, profiting from or adapting that work. Copyrights protect both artistic works and computer software programs. Copyright law is designed to balance the economic and moral rights of creators with the interest of society in using and enjoying works of authorship.

Are Commercials Copyrighted?

With the free accessibility of information and creative content over the Internet, it can be hard to know what is legally available to take and enjoy for free. It can be confusing to realize that something that may be free and legal to enjoy in one context may not be in another context. Most people think of commercials as a free bit of advertising that they are subjected to when they watch television or listen to the radio. Just because a commercial is broadcast for free through certain media does not mean that it is legal for anybody to upload the commercial on YouTube or post it for download on a website. Commercials are copyrighted, and only authorized parties may broadcast, copy or distribute them.

Implications of Copyright Law

A copyright grants its holder a legal monopoly on the use and commercial exploitation of an original work of authorship. Copyright law is authorized by Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. Copyrighted material can include such diverse works as musical compositions and software algorithms. The protection of copyrights has a profound effect on the economy.

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