Learn more about Public Performance Rights for Videorecordings
What is copyright?
Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, including material published in electronic format. Copyright protection covers any work, published or unpublished.
Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created in fixed form. The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work. Only the author or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully claim copyright.
Copyright law protects the expression of ideas or facts, not the ideas or facts themselves.
Copyright protection begins from the moment a work is started and some aspect of it has been fixed in a tangible medium. In the U.S., no registration or notice is required for works to be protected under copyright law. However, registration is advised if legal action is undertaken to recover damages; posting the copyright notice also prevents the "innocent offender" defense, where a copyright violator might claim that s/he was not aware of the copyright status of the work that s/he reproduced.
What is not protected by copyright?
Several categories of material are generally not eligible for federal copyright protection. These include among others:
- works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded)
- titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration
- works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources) - most of the information produced by the U.S. Government is not copyrighted and may be freely used
What are the limits to copyright?
In general, it is permissible for a person to reproduce portions of another's work under the doctrine of "fair use", including applications that clearly advance education or scholarship
What to consider when determining "fair use"
- the purpose of the use - including non-profit educational use
- the nature of the copyrighted work
- the amount of the copying
- the effect of the copying on the market value (or potential market value) of the work
- always get written permission to reproduce another's work (see link below for how-to) or
- use only your original work in your project
A work that is created (fixed in tangible form for the first time) on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author's life plus an additional 70 years after the author's death.
Under the law in effect before 1978, copyright was secured either on the date a work was published with a copyright notice or on the date of registration if the work was registered in unpublished form. In either case, the copyright endured for a first term of 28 years from the date it was secured. During the last (28th) year of the first term, the copyright was eligible for renewal. The Copyright Act of 1976 extended the renewal term from 28 to 47 years for copyrights that were subsisting on January 1, 1978, or for pre-1978 copyrights restored under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), making these works eligible for a total term of protection of 75 years. Public Law 105-298, enacted on October 27, 1998, further extended the renewal term of copyrights still subsisting on that date by an additional 20 years, providing for a renewal term of 67 years and a total term of protection of 95 years.
Public Law 102-307, enacted on June 26, 1992, amended the 1976 Copyright Act to provide for automatic renewal of the term of copyrights secured between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977. Although the renewal term is automatically provided, the Copyright Office does not issue a renewal certificate for these works unless a renewal application and fee are received and registered in the Copyright Office. Public Law 102-307 makes renewal registration optional. Thus, filing for renewal registration is no longer required in order to extend the original 28-year copyright term to the full 95 years. However, some benefits accrue from making a renewal registration during the 28th year of the original term.
Investigating the copyright status of a work
There are several ways to investigate whether a work is under copyright protection and, if so, the facts of the copyright. These are the main ones:
Examine a copy of the work for such elements as a copyright notice, place and date of publication, author and publisher. If the work is a sound recording, examine the disk, tape cartridge, or cassette in which the recorded sound is fixed, or the album cover, sleeve, or container in which the recording is sold.
Make a search of the Copyright Office catalogs and other records or have the Copyright Office make a search for you.
Learn the basics with the copyright comic book from Duke University: "Tales from the Public Domain: Bound by Law?"
How to investigate the copyright status of a work
Determine public domain status
United States Copyright Office
general information on what is and is not protected by copyright, how to search for copyright records, updates on legal aspects of copyright issues
Copyright Registration for Online Resources
Copyright and Fair Use - Stanford University Libraries
award-winning, comprehensive copyright/fair use information resource
Copyright Clearance Center
"manages rights relating to over 1.75 million works and represents more than 9,600 publishers and hundreds of thousands of authors and other creators, directly or through their representatives."
Harry Ransom Center
Contains the freely-accessible WATCH File (Writers, Artists and their Copyright Holders), which gives searchers information on contact persons for copyright holders for U.S. and U.K. authors and artists.