Quick Summary of Copyright Issues

What is copyright?

Copyright gives the creator of an original work the right to protect his or her work from unauthorized use by others. A copyrighted work may not be duplicated, distributed or performed without the consent of the owner. Copyright was included in the law to provide incentive to authors to create original works by granting them an essential monopoly over their work.

What is protected by copyright?

Copyright protects any original work of authorship that is in tangible form, regardless of whether or not a notice of copyright exists on the work. Original expressions may include literature, musical works, paintings, sculpture, audiovisual works, sound recordings, or architectural works. Tangible form may include anything written on paper, saved to disk(web pages, graphics on web, electronic mail messages or computer programs), or saved on any audio/video device. There are, however, several fundamental items that are not eligible for copyright protection: ideas, facts, titles, names, procedures, and works not fixed in tangible form. Copyright only protects the form in which these ideas or facts are expressed, not the ideas or facts themselves.

When does a work become protected?

The original expression becomes protected by copyright as soon as it is in tangible form. So, once an original expression exists in a tangible form, that expression is protected by copyright.

How long does copyright protection last?

The length of protection varies depending on when the item in question was created (the laws changed in 1978). If the expression was created:

Who owns the copyright?

The creator owns the copyright unless he or she creates the work for someone else (possibly the institution they work for). In the case of creating for someone else (a principal), the principal owns the copyright. This situation is also known as "work for hire." For example, as part of my employment at the University of Colorado, I am creating this HTML page of question and answers on copyright issues. The copyright to this page belongs to the University of Colorado, unless otherwise agreed to by myself and the University.

Is a registered copyright necessary for me? Should I register?

As we already know, copyright protection is automatically attached to your original work, so what are the advantages of registering a work? There are really only two reasons to register:

  1. You must be registered before an infringement suit may be filed.
  2. You must be registered within three months of the creation of the work in order to collect statutory damages and attorney's fees in a law suit. Otherwise, the law will only allow the collection of actual damages, which will generally be less than statutory damages.

How do I register?

To register a work, send the following to Register of Copyrights, Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington D.C., 20559:

Public Domain. When can I copy free of worry? How do I waive my copyright privileges as owner?

When an original work is not protected by copyright, it is considered to be in the public domain. Anyone can use any work in the public domain without fear of infringing copyright law. Government documents, works with expired copyrights, and those works specifically granted to the public domain are all unprotected by copyright law. Only the owner of the copyright may grant it to the public domain. All that must be done is clearly state on the work that it is part of the public domain.

Licensing. How do I obtain permission to copy from a copyrighted work?

Simply contact the owner of the copyright and obtain written permission. It may be necessary to work out a contract which states what you can use, when, in what manner, and how much it will cost.

Fair Use. When is it OK to infringe on copyright protections?

The U.S. Copyright Act, § 107. Limitations on exclusive rights: fair use

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A [17 USCS § 106, § 106A] the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include--

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

The following resources proved to be a great help in the creation of this page:
  1. The Copyright Website
  2. Copyright and Fair Use: A Guide for the Harvard Community
  3. U.S. Copyright Law.
Thank you.