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A copyright grants the legal right to exclusive publication, production, sale, or distribution of a literary or artistic work.
Copyright, body of legal rights that protect creative works from being reproduced, performed, displayed, or disseminated by others without permission. The owner of copyright has the exclusive right to reproduce a protected work; to prepare other works based on the protected work; to sell, rent, or lend copies of the protected work to the public; to perform protected works in public; and to display copyrighted works publicly. These basic exclusive rights of copyright owners are subject to exceptions depending on the type of work and the type of use made by others.

The term work used in copyright law refers to any original creation of authorship fixed in a tangible medium. Thus, works that can be protected by copyright include literary pieces, musical compositions, dramatic selections, dances, photographs, drawings, paintings, sculpture, diagrams, advertisements, maps, motion pictures, radio and television programs, sound recordings, and computer software programs.

Copyright does not protect an idea or concept; it only protects the way in which an author has expressed an idea or concept. If, for example, a scientist publishes an article explaining a new process for making a medicine, the copyright prevents others from copying the article, but it does not prevent anyone from using the process described to prepare the medicine. In order to protect the process, the scientist must obtain a patent.

History of Copyright

The first real copyright law, enacted in 1710 by the British Parliament, was the Statute of Anne. This law forbade the unauthorized printing, reprinting, or importing of books for a limited number of years.

In the United States, the founding fathers recognized the need to encourage creativity by protecting authors. They placed in the Constitution of the United States a provision giving Congress the power "to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries" (Art. I, Sect. 8). This provision gave the federal government the power to enact copyright and patent statutes. In 1790, Congress passed the first U.S. copyright law. Since then, the copyright statutes have been expanded and changed by Congress many times. A major revision of U.S. law was made in the 1909 Copyright Act, which remained the basic framework for protection until January 1, 1978, when the Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect. The 1976 act, which is the legal basis for copyright protection today, made substantial and important changes in U.S. law.

Copyright in the United States

The 1976 Copyright Act established a single system of federal statutory protection for all eligible works, both published and unpublished. For works created after January 1, 1978, copyright becomes the property of the author the moment the work is created and lasts for the author's life plus 50 years. When a work is created by an employee in the normal course of a job, however, the copyright becomes the property of the employer and lasts for 75 years from publication or 100 years from creation, whichever is shorter. For works created before 1978, the old act provided that the copyright endured for 28 years from the date the copyright was secured and might be extended for another 28 years, for a maximum term of protection of 56 years. The new act extended the renewal term for copyrights existing on January 1, 1978, so that copyright protection would last for 75 years. However, for works produced in the United States prior to 1964, the owner must have filed a renewal application to obtain the benefit of the renewal period. Works that first obtained statutory copyright protection in 1964 or later automatically receive the benefit of the renewal period.


Although copyright becomes effective on creation of a work, for works publicly distributed before March 1, 1989, the copyright is potentially invalidated unless a prescribed copyright notice is placed on all publicly distributed copies. For works published on or after March 1, 1989, the use of a copyright notice is optional, though recommended. This notice consists either of the word Copyright, the abbreviation Copr., or the symbol accompanied by the name of the owner and the year of first publication (for example, John Doe 1982). In most printed books the copyright notice appears on the reverse side of the title page. The use of the notice is the responsibility of the copyright owner and does not require advance permission from, or registration with, the Copyright Office. A similar notice bearing the symbol (for example, 1982 Doe Record Company) may be used to protect sound recordings such as phonograph records and tapes.

To enforce a copyright, the U.S. author or owner must have applied to register with the Copyright Office in Washington, D.C. To register, the copyright owner must fill out the application, pay a fee, and send two complete copies of the work, if published, which will be placed in the Library of Congress. The sooner the claim to copyright is registered, the more remedies the author may have in any litigation to enforce the copyright.


Copyright can be sold or licensed to others. Licenses of copyrights are normally granted in written contracts agreed to by all parties involved. For example, an author of a novel can license one publisher to print the work in hardbound copies, another publisher to produce paperback copies, and a motion-picture company to make a movie based on the novel. A sale or license of copyright made on or after January 1, 1978, can be terminated by the author (or by the author's family) 35 years after the sale or license. The purpose of allowing such a termination is to permit an author to obtain more financial reward if the work remains commercially valuable over a long period of time. For the sale or license made before 1978, the author has a similar right of termination 56 years from the date the copyright was originally secured or beginning on January 1, 1978, whichever is later.

The 1976 law sets up conditions for reproduction of copies by libraries and archives and for transmission of audiovisual and other programs and forbids unauthorized duplication of sound recordings. It provides for royalty payments on recorded music, on public performance of sound recordings by coin-operated phonographs, and on transmission of some television programs. A radio station that broadcasts a recording of copyrighted music is "performing" the work publicly and for profit and must be licensed to do so. In 1984, however, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that noncommercial use of videocassette recorders does not violate copyright law.


Copyright infringement is any violation of the exclusive rights mentioned above—for example, making an unauthorized copy of a copyrighted book. Infringement does not necessarily require word-for-word reproduction; "substantial similarity" to the copyright-protected content of a work is sufficient.

Generally, copyright infringements are dealt with in civil lawsuits in federal court. If infringement is proved, the copyright owner has several remedies available. The court may order an injunction against future infringement; the destruction of infringing copies; reimbursement for any financial loss incurred by the copyright owner; transfer of profits made from the sale of infringing copies; and payment of fixed damages (usually between $500 and $20,000) for each work infringed, as well as court costs and attorney's fees. In copyright cases, a criminal penalty of imprisonment and/or a fine can be imposed for knowingly infringing the copyright for profit.

Fair Use

An exception to the rule of copyright infringement is the concept known as fair use, which permits the reproduction of copyrighted material for purposes such as criticism, comment, teaching and research. In deciding whether a use falls within the fair use exceptions, several factors are considered, including the purpose of the use and the effect of the use on the value of the original work. Examples of fair use include the quotation of excerpts from a book, poem, or play in a critical review for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of passages in a scholarly or technical book to illustrate or clarify the author's observations; use in a parody of some of the work being parodied; summary of a speech or article, with quotations, in a news report; and reproduction by a teacher or student of a portion of a work to illustrate a lesson. Because works created by the U.S. government cannot be copyrighted, material from the many publications put out by the U.S. Government Printing Office may be reproduced without fear of infringement.

Advances in Technology

Technological development has produced and will continue to produce new and different ways to store information in smaller and smaller spaces, retrievable by electronic methods. Congress, in passing the 1976 Copyright Act, recognized that it could not foresee all the new methods of fixing or storing information. Accordingly, it broadly defined the category of copyrightable material to include all "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device." Thus, an author who types a story on a computer, which stores it on a tape or disc in computer memory, has "fixed" the work in a "copy" sufficient for copyright protection.

International Copyright

Almost every nation has some form of copyright protection for authors and artists. Most do not require marking published copies with a formal copyright notice or registering the claim with the Copyright Office, though use of appropriate copyright notices is recommended to maximize international protection.

The United States is a member of the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC), an international treaty organization in effect since 1955, designed to eliminate discrimination against foreigners in copyright protection. More than 70 nations belong to the UCC. Every member nation must give foreign works that meet UCC requirements the same copyright protection as that nation gives to domestic works and authors. An American who wishes to secure copyright protection in the United States and in UCC member nations at the same time can do so by marking all published copies with a copyright notice that satisfies the provisions of both the UCC treaty and domestic U.S. law. This notice includes the symbol , the name of the copyright owner, and the year of first publication. Although no such thing as an "international copyright" exists, it is easy for an author to obtain copyright protection in many nations.

Several other international conventions also provide copyright protection. As of March 1, 1989, the United States became a member of the Berne Convention, which protects any works first published in a member nation, without formalities such as a copyright notice. The Buenos Aires Convention, a multilateral treaty of North and South American nations including the United States, requires a statement such as "All Rights Reserved" to be printed in the copyright notice. In February 1995 the United States and China signed an agreement to prevent companies in China from illegally manufacturing items, such as compact discs and computer software, in violation of American copyrights. The United States estimates that this piracy caused American businesses to lose $1 billion a year. To stop copyright violations, China agreed to establish task forces and increase the power of customs officials.

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