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.

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.

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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.

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Can Students Draw a Cartoon Character or Is It Copyrighted?

References

Related articles

What Is Copyright Infraction?

With easily copied material available on the Internet, the likelihood of copyright infraction has increased. Copyright is a legal protection for the creators of original literary, musical, artistic and intellectual works. Protection generally lasts until 70 years after the creator’s death. A copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, display and prepare derivative works of the original work. Protection automatically exists as soon as the work is in fixed or tangible form, but optional copyright registration gives the owner the right to sue in federal court to protect the copyright.

Can I Record Someone Else's Song and Change the Words in Parody Law?

United States copyright law grants legal protection to various creative works, including songs or lyrics. Under The Copyright Act of 1976, copyright holders have exclusive rights to reproduce their creations for a specific length of time. Those exclusive rights are limited by the doctrine of “fair use,” which allows for others to reproduce a work in whole or in part for use in a parody without the copyright holder’s permission, provided the parody meets certain criteria.

Consequences for Breaking Copyright Laws

A copyright protects the creator of a literary or artistic work from theft of the material by someone else. Copyright infringement is the unauthorized use of copyrighted material, or its distribution to the public without the creator’s permission. There are a wide variety of penalties associated with copyright infringement, which is a violation of federal law.

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