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January 16, 2018

Copyright Basics

By: Zachary Smart

Copyright protection is contemplated under the Constitution of the United States and governed by the U.S. Copyright Act. More specifically, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution includes “[promoting] 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,” while the U.S. Copyright Act (17 U.S.C §102(a)) states that “[copyright] protection subsists … in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”

To qualify as original, a work must not be copied from another individual and must have at least a minimum level of creativity. The U.S. Copyright Act (17 U.S.C §101) further states that “A work is ‘fixed’ in a tangible medium of expression when its embodiment … is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration.”

Categories of copyrightable works specifically enumerated under the U.S. Copyright Act (17 U.S.C §102(a)) include literary works; musical works, including any accompanying words; dramatic works, including any accompanying music; pantomimes and choreographic works; pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works; motion pictures and other audiovisual works; sound recordings; and architectural works.

Regardless of the category of copyrighted work, a copyright owner retains the right to reproduce the work; prepare derivative works; distribute copies by sale, rental, lease, or lending; perform works publicly (e.g., audiovisual works); and display works publicly (e.g., musical and artistic works) (U.S. Copyright Act 17 U.S.C §106). In addition, copyrighted works made by individuals on or after January 1, 1978 are protected for the life of the author of the work plus an additional 70 years, while works made by individuals before January 1, 1978 (and after 1923) are protected for 95 years.

Notably, all works fixed in a tangible medium are automatically copyrighted. Accordingly, while other forms of intellectual property (e.g., patents and trademarks) can require much more formal processes for acquiring protection, creating a protectable copyright is generally much less formal, even when applying for federal registration of the work.

For more Copyright Basics, see the included slides.

3 thoughts on “Copyright Basics”
  1. A. K. says:

    Concise & excellent summary of the current US copyright law!

    Slide #13 may need attention: Life of the author plus 70 years (is it not “after 1977” rather than “after 1978” [the 1976 Copyright Act went into effect on January 1, 1978]).

  2. KG says:

    My main question is WHEN is it optimal to register a work? For example I have 50-60 songs, some that are more than 10 years old but I’m just now beginning to record and make available. Should I wait UNTIL THEY’RE PUBLISHED to register or is it better to register before, even during the recording process? I’ve seen some articles that are confusing regarding the timing and have even suggested registering the UNpublished work and then again once it’s published, which seems to be making it more complicated than it is. And I think even during registration it is asked if the work is published. So some clarity on this front would be helpful.

  3. Valerie Pugh says:

    Currently in possession of a final draft from an original stage play written by a now deceased author. This property is legally copywrited in the United States and being held by a literary agent in NY, NY. As a friend of the deceased authors family, am I able to write a screen play adaptation from this manuscript? I am a performing arts students, please explain the “Right to prepare derivative works.” Thanks very much, Valerie Pugh

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