Types of Copyright Law

By David Carnes

Originally, copyright law in the United States was protected by common law that originated in England. Later the U.S. Congress passed the Copyright Act -- found in Title 17 of the U.S. Code -- and amended it several times. The Copyright Act modified but did not repeal common law. In addition, the U.S. has signed copyright treaties with other nations. This legal background has given rise to several different types of copyright law.

Automatic Copyrights

Your work obtains an "automatic copyright" as soon as you reduce it to a tangible medium -- such as recording a song -- as long as it is original. You may then sue an infringing party for any damages his infringement caused you. The main disadvantage of an automatic copyright is that it is often difficult to prove damages. To prove that you were damaged by someone who uploaded your copyrighted song to a popular website, for example, you might have to show that a certain number of people listened to your song on the website instead of purchasing it from you.

Works for Hire

A work for hire copyright is created when one party agrees to create a work in exchange for payment from another party. The moment the work is created, it belongs to the party who paid for the work rather than the party who created it. An example of a work for hire might be a magazine feature article written by a writer who signed a work-for-hire agreement prior to his employment with the magazine.

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Registered Copyrights

The U.S. Copyright Office will register the work of copyright holders who apply for registration. Once a work is registered, the copyright holder is automatically entitled to sue an infringing party in federal court. He does not need to prove damages, and he can collect up to $150,000 per work in statutory fines from the infringing party, depending on the discretion of the court. Alternatively, the copyright holder may still sue for damages if he can prove the amount of damages.

International Copyright Treaties

Two major copyright treaties exist: the Berne Convention and the Universal Copyright Convention. Most of the nations of the world have signed at least one of these two treaties -- and the United States has signed both. These treaties allow works created in one nation to be copyrighted in other treaty nations. Protection abroad, however, is subject to the copyright law of the nation that grants copyright protection. For example, a work created in the United States is protected in Canada, but Canadian law rather than U.S. law determines the date the copyright expires.

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What Are the Copyright Laws for Images?

Digital cameras and social networking sites have led to an increase in the volume of images across the media. Anyone who uploads images to a website, or who downloads or copies images created by others, should be aware of the importance of copyright. Copyright laws protect the creators of original works from unauthorized reproduction or copying and penalize those who fail to respect others’ copyrights. Chapter 17 of the United States Code contains the Copyright Act and the relevant laws.

Comic Copyright Laws

Copyright law protects original works from unlicensed copying or reproduction. The copyright belongs to the creator of the work and exists from the moment the work is produced in a fixed form. Copyright extends to both pictorial and written expressions and therefore includes both the writing and the pictures contained in comics. Depending on the nature and style of the comic, it can be classified as either a work of visual arts or a literary work. The Copyright Act can be found in Title 17 of the United States Code.

What Is the Copyright Law Regarding Artwork?

A variety of copyright laws are specific to artwork, as artwork provides some considerations unique to other copyrighted materials. In particular, artwork is subject to the Visual Artists Rights Act, the first sale doctrine and specific resale rights which vary by location. Finally, artwork can be subject to rules regarding works made for hire, since artwork is often commissioned.


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