Overview of U.S. Copyright Law

The term "copyright" actually refers to a bundle of rights created and protected by federal statute (17 U.S.C. § 101 et.seq). It includes the exclusive rights to reproduce, sell, distribute, perform, display, and license the original work or derivative works. The owner of these rights can give away, sell, or license any or all of them on either a temporary or permanent basis.

What can be copyrighted?

Original works "fixed" in a tangible medium (e.g., paper, canvas, magnetic tape, digital recording, etc.) may be copyrighted including:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural work;
  • Motion picture and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

You CANNOT copyright an idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery. (However, some of these might be patentable.)

How can a copyright for an original work be obtained?

It is essential to understand that copyrights are now automatically conferred by law at the moment the work is "fixed." An infringer may be enjoined from publishing the work even without any formal notice of copyright. However, prior notice and registration with the U.S. Copyright Office are necessary in order to sue an infringer for damages and attorneys fees. The preferred notice is given by affixing the copyright symbol ["©","(c)", "Copr."], date of first publication, and name of the work's owner.

How long does a copyright last?

The duration of a copyright varies greatly depending on the year in which it was created or published. The law has been amended several times, most recently in October of 1998. Currently, a copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. If the work is created for someone else (a "work made for hire") or if it is anonymous or pseudonymous (i.e., a pen name), it lasts for 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first. Publication includes loaning, leasing, selling, or giving away copies of the work.

Once a copyright expires, the work enters the "public domain" and may be used freely by anyone. The author may also put the work into the public domain before expiration of the statutory period by expressly saying so.

For more information, see this chart from Cornell University.

What are the penalties for copyright infringement?

The penalties include payment of actual damages, costs and attorneys fees, fines of up to $100,000 (for willful violations) and, in egregious cases, criminal prosecution leading to imprisonment for up to 5 years.

For more information on this subject, see Cyberspace Law for Non-Laywers.

Copyright Exemptions for Libraries

Section 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law offers certain exemptions to libraries, creating something of an extension of the fair use provisions in limited cases.

  • Libraries and archives may make up to three copies (in analog or digital format) of any unpublished work for purposes of preservation and security or for deposit in another repository for research purposes. These copies cannot be made available outside the library or archives, cannot involve a profit motive, and must include a copyright notice.
  • Libraries and archives may make up to three copies (in analog or digital format) of a published work but only in order to replace a copy from the library's collection when the original is damaged, deteriorating, lost, stolen, or in an obsolete format, and when an unused replacement copy cannot be obtained at a fair price.
  • If digital copies are made, they may not be distributed outside the library. In other words, a DVD (digital) copy of an analog videotape may not be sent out for interlibrary loan, etc. Only another videotape copy can be distributed.
  • Libraries and archives generally may digitize and make freely available any published work that is within the last twenty years of its copyright protection.
  • Libraries and archives may provide users with copies (in analog or digital format) of a small portion of many types of works in response to requests made for purposes of private study, research, or scholarship. There are limitations to this exemption, particularly with respect to audiovisual materials. It may be permissible to copy and distribute a larger proportion (or all) of the work if another physical copy (new or used) cannot be purchased at a reasonable price.

Useful Copyright Resources

More information