Copyright Law


Copyright Law

Copyright law protects works of original or creative expression from unauthorized copying‚ reproduction‚ public display‚ or performance. American Copyright law originated in the Copyright Clause of the Constitution of the United States. The Copyright Clause empowered congress‚ “…to promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Modernly‚ copyright law is governed by the Copyright Act of 1976 which provided protection for works upon their creation. In addition to the 1976 Act‚ Congress has enacted several additions to copyright protection including the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.

When an author‚ songwriter‚ play-write‚ sculptor‚ painter‚ architect‚ choreographer‚ or other creative person creates an original work‚ he or she holds several rights in that work of art if certain requirements are satisfied. First‚ the work must be original‚ or involve more than a minimal amount of creativity. Second‚ the work must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression from which it can be perceived‚ reproduced‚ or communicated. Finally‚ the original creation must involve copyrightable subject matter. For more on copyright requirements see What is a Copyright?.

Copyright law‚ however‚ does not protect ideas or general concepts. Instead‚ copyright law protects the way in which an idea is expressed‚ such as through a song‚ novel‚ play‚ script‚ painting‚ or other medium of expression. For example‚ if a person had an idea for a certain type of website‚ the idea itself could not be the subject of a copyright. However if that idea were expressed in the form of an actual website‚ the website would be entitled to protection under copyright law. Once the website is created‚ the author can utilize copyright law to prevent others from copying or reproducing it in any way.

Once a work meets the requirements for copyright protection‚ the author or creator has several exclusive rights in the work‚ including the exclusive right to copy‚ the right to make derivative works‚ the right to distribute‚ and the right to perform or display the work in public.

Right to Copy

The owner of the work has the exclusive right to make copies of the work. The right to copy applies to both the entire work and a part of the work. For example‚ one could not copy the first half of a novel without the permission of the author. In addition‚ copying into a different form is also prohibited. For example‚ the author of a novel could prevent someone from making a sound recording or book-on-tape of that novel.

Copying is prohibited when it is “material and substantial.” Materiality refers to the quality of the copying‚ or whether the copying involves the heart of the work or the work’s essence. Substantiality‚ on the other hand‚ refers to the quantity of copying‚ or how much of the work has been copied. Typically‚ for copyright infringement‚ the copying must be both material and substantial.

De minimis copying‚ or minimal copying is a defense to copyright infringement. In addition‚ depending on the purpose of the use‚ fair use may be a valid defense. Some examples of fair use involve education‚ research‚ and news reporting.

Right to Make Derivative Works

A copyright holder has the exclusive right to make derivative works based on her original creation. A derivative work is something that is based on one or more preexisting works but appears in a different form. For example‚ a motion picture based on a book would be a derivative work. The author of that book would hold the exclusive rights to make such a movie. It should be noted that derivative works themselves may be copyrightable to the extent that they contain original elements of authorship.

Right to Distribute

The copyright holder also owns the right to control the sale and distribution of the copyrighted work. Copyright holders may sell or distribute the work themselves or license the works to distributors for sale to the public. The right to distribute‚ however‚ is limited by the First Sale Doctrine. The first sale doctrine allows a purchaser of a copyrighted work to resell his or her copy after purchase. For instance‚ an author has the right to license her book to a publishing company for distribution. However once a copy of the book is purchased by a consumer‚ he may resell his copy of the book without interference from the copyright holder.

Right to Public Performance and Display

The owner of a copyright has the right to control the public performance and display of the work. A copyright holder‚ in contrast‚ does not have the exclusive right to control the private performance or display of a work. A public audience involves a substantial number of people outside of a typical family or social circle‚ while a private performance or display would usually occur in the home among family and friends.

For example‚ if a consumer purchases a movie on DVD‚ the copyright holder has no control over how many times that consumer watches the movie in their own home. However‚ the copyright holder will have the right to prevent that consumer from showing the movie to a public audience outside of the home‚ such as at a movie theater or projected on a screen in a park.

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