Copyright law is a branch of intellectual property law that protects the rights or writers, artists, musicians, and others who make their living and reputation through their production of original literary or artistic work. A copyright gives an author the exclusive right to publish or distribute his or her work. The rationale behind copyright law is to allow authors to benefit financially from their own work and thus encourage them to create more art and literature and share it with the public. A wide range of creative and intellectual works cannot be protected under copyright law, including fiction, poetry, plays, movies, musical compositions, theses and dissertations, audio recordings, photographs, paintings, sculptures, software, television shows, and public broadcasts.
Copyright generally lasts for a set period of time prescribed by law. Once the copyright expires, the work enters the public domain where it can be used and distributed freely by anyone. However, a copyright generally lasts between fifty and a hundred years after the death of the author.
To enjoy maximum protections of copyright law, an author should register his or her copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. However, registration is not necessary to become a copyright holder. Technically, copyright exists from the moment an original work is created. A copyright holder has the right to reproduce his or her work, sell it, import and export it, create derivative works or adaptations, perform or display the work publicly, broadcast it through audio or video media, and sell or assign the copyright to others. These rights are exclusive to the copyright holder; if someone else attempts to exercise those rights, the copyright holder can seek redress in a court of law. For the most part, violations of copyright law are civil. However, political pressure from the recording industry, which believed it was losing huge profits as a result of file-sharing sites such as Napster, resulted in legislation that makes the use and distribution of over ten copies worth more than $2500 a felony.
Although copyright laws are quite strict, there are some exceptions. Under the doctrine of “fair use,” teachers can copy and distribute work for educational purposes and critics for purposes of commentary. In addition, although copyright law forbids the creation of derivative works, it does not violate any rights of the copyright holder to write or stage a parody of an already-existing work. It is also important to note that ideas cannot be copyrighted, only the particular form or manner in which an author expresses those ideas. The classic example is Mickey Mouse. Creating a derivative work in which Mickey Mouse was included as a character would violate Disney’s copyright over the Mickey Mouse cartoon series. However, it would not violate copyright to create a new character based on a different mouse, for instance, Mighty Mouse. It also would not violate copyright to perform a skit on a show such as Saturday Night Live that parodied Mickey Mouse or the Mickey Mouse Club.
When using or referring to the works of others in works of your own, it is vital to get the author’s permission (if, for instance, you are making copies of the work and distributing it or putting a large chunk of the work on your web site) or to properly cite the original work (if you refer to or quote from the work in a term paper or thesis), as appropriate. If you use copyrighted work without permission, you are violating copyright law even if you yourself do not make money doing so. It’s also important to remember that works on the internet are not in the public domain simply because they are online; literary and artistic work on the internet is protected by copyright law. So copying an article that you find on the internet and putting it on your own website without the author’s permission is a copyright violation. Also it is a misconception that a work is protected by copyright law only if it bears a copyright symbol or notice. To be on the safe side, you should always assume that a work is copyright-protected even where there is no notice on the work to that effect.
For those with more questions about the basics of copyright law, the website for the U.S. Copyright Office includes many helpful resources, including a primer on copyright basics and a page of frequently asked questions on copyright law.