Basics of Copyright Law

Basics of Copyright Law

Before registering your copyright, you should understand the basic principles of copyright law.

A copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to authors of "original works of authorship." This includes literary, dramatic, musical, artistic and certain other creative works. A copyright holder can prevent others from copying, performing or displaying the work without his or her consent.

Legal Rights

The 1976 Copyright Act grants exclusive rights to the owner of a copyright, which they can exercise themselves or authorize others to exercise. These exclusive rights include:

  • The right to reproduce the work
  • The right to prepare derivative works such as translations and abridged versions
  • The right to distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or rental
  • The right to perform the work publicly (e.g. for music, plays, dances, and motion pictures)
  • The right to display the work publicly, (e.g. for paintings, sculptures, or photographs)
  • The right to perform the work publicly (in the case of sound recordings) by means of a digital audio transmission

Limitation on Rights

There are some limitations to these exclusive rights, such as the rights of others to “fair use” of the work or to obtain a “compulsory license,” under which certain limited uses of copyrighted works is permitted. Fair use is a concept that has been developed through court decisions, and carves out various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. A compulsory license allows certain limited uses of copyrighted works upon payment of specified royalties and compliance with statutory conditions. One of the most common uses of a compulsory license is in the music industry.

Creation of Rights

Copyright protection is automatic upon the creation of a work. Nothing need be done at the creation of a work to give you the copyright. An original work is considered created when it is fixed in a tangible medium, such as written down or recorded. No copyright can be had for a work that is just a thought and not yet fixed in a tangible medium.

Protection of Rights

Until March 1, 1989, a copyright notice had to appear on a published work before it could be protected. If a work was published without such notice, the copyright was lost and the work was in the public domain for anyone to use. However, in 1989, the United States became a signatory to the Berne Convention, an international agreement that allows a work to be protected even if it has no notice on it. Therefore, works originally published in the United States after March 1, 1989, are protected even if no copyright notice appears on them. However, as a practical matter, it is best to put a copyright notice on all copies of a work.

Note: In copyright law, the word "publish" means to distribute copies to the public. This does not necessarily have to be done by a commercial "publisher." Making several photocopies of your manuscript and loaning, selling, or giving them out can be considered publishing a work.

Mandatory Deposit of Copies

The copyright law also requires that within three months of publication of a work, two copies of the best edition of that work must be deposited with the Copyright Office. The best edition of a work is usually the best quality edition printed (such as hardback rather than paperback). Usually, this means sending them in with the registration form.