Copyright Law

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1. Definition

U.S. copyright law protects original works of authorship.  Copyrights exist automatically, as soon as a work is fixed in a tangible form.  For additional remedies and protection, and as a pre-requisite for enforcing a copyright in federal court, works should be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.


A copyright owner enjoys a “bundle” of separate and distinct rights, including the right to:  (i) reproduce a work; (ii) make derivations of the work; (iii) sell copies of the work; (iv) perform the work for the public; (v) display the work to the public; and (vi) license any of the foregoing rights in the work to others.


Copyright law protects literary works (including computer programs); musical works; dramatic works; pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works (including maps); motion picture and other audiovisual works; sound recordings; and architectural works.  Copyright law protects materials on websites and in electronic databases, as well as in hard copy.


2. Copyright Notice

Under current law, it is no longer necessary to place a copyright notice on a work to protect it.  Even though it is not essential, however, a copyright notice is highly recommended because it alerts the public to one’s  rights in a copyrighted work.  It also prevents any infringer of a copyright from claiming an “innocent infringer” defense – that is, that the infringer should not be liable for unauthorized use of the work because he or she did not realize it was protected by copyright.  If the notice is used, it should include three things:  (i) the copyright symbol © and the word “Copyright,”  (ii) the year of first publication of the work, and (iii) the copyright owner.  Example:  “Copyright  © 2015 by Robert A. Monath.”  It is also a good practice to include the declaration “All rights reserved.”


3. Duration

Generally, for works created after January 1, 1978, a copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.  After this term expires, the work enters the public domain and may be freely used by anyone.


Prior to 1978, a copyright endured for an initial term of 28 years from the date of registration with an optional second renewal term of 28 years, for a total length of protection of 56 years.  If the initial copyright registration was not renewed through the filing of a renewal registration with the Copyright Office, the copyright in the work would expire after the first 28-year term. Through enactment of the Copyright Act of 1976 (effective January 1, 1978), the second term of pre-1978 copyrights was extended resulting in a total length of protection of 75 years. With the enactment of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term extension Act of 1998 an additional 20 years was added to the second term of pre-1978 works, culminating in a combined term of 95 years.


Accordingly, as a rule of thumb, pre-1978 works published on or after January 1, 1923 should enjoy a 95-year term of copyright protection in the U.S.  Works published prior to January 1, 1923 are generally in the public domain in the U.S.