Intellectual PropertyCopyright Law

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property law that protects the original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright grants the creator exclusive rights to use, reproduce, distribute, perform, display, and make derivative works from their original creation for a certain period of time, typically the life of the author plus 70 years in the United States (this duration can vary by country).

The main purpose of copyright is to encourage the creation of art and culture by giving authors and creators the legal right to control and profit from their creations. It strikes a balance between the creators’ rights and the public interest, providing a legal framework for the protection of creative works while also allowing for limited use under certain conditions, such as fair use, which permits uses such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research without infringement.

Copyright protection is automatic upon the creation of the work and its fixation in a tangible form that is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Registration, while not required for copyright protection, can provide additional legal benefits and is necessary for filing infringement lawsuits in federal court in the United States.

intellectual property Lawyers Directory
intellectual property Lawyers Directory

A copyright owner is an individual or entity that holds the exclusive rights to a work protected under copyright law, which is a critical aspect of intellectual property. These rights include the ability to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, and create derivative works based on the original creation. Typically, the copyright owner is the creator of the work, such as an author, artist, musician, or software developer.

However, copyright can also be transferred or licensed to others, meaning publishers, production companies, or businesses can become copyright owners through agreements with the original creators. In cases where a work is made for hire, the employer or commissioning party, rather than the individual who created the work, is considered the copyright owner from the moment of creation, provided the work meets specific legal criteria set by copyright law. This framework of intellectual property rights is designed to protect creators’ outputs and incentivize innovation and creativity within society.

Copyright protection hinges on two fundamental principles: originality and fixation.

  1. Originality: For a work to be protected by copyright, it must be original. This means it has to be independently created by the author and possess at least a minimal degree of creativity. The standard for originality is not high; even modest creativity or minimal alteration can qualify a work for copyright protection. The idea is that the work should not be copied from another source and should reflect some input or effort from its creator.
  2. Fixation: The work must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression from which it can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the help of a machine or device. This means that the work must be sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of time more than transitory duration. Examples of fixation include writing a novel on paper, saving a digital file on a computer’s hard drive, recording a song on a CD, or painting a picture on a canvas.

Together, these criteria ensure that copyright law protects a wide range of creative works across various media, from books and music to software and digital art, provided they are original creations that have been fixed in a tangible form. This framework allows authors and creators to control and benefit from their creations, promoting the production and dissemination of culture and knowledge.

Under U.S. copyright law, copyright owners are granted a bundle of exclusive rights that are designed to protect their original works of authorship and to give them control over how their works are used. These exclusive rights include:

  1. The Right to Reproduce the Work: This right allows copyright owners to control the making of copies of their copyrighted work, whether those copies are made digitally, printed on paper, or in any other form.
  2. The Right to Prepare Derivative Works: Copyright owners have the right to create new works based on the original copyrighted work. This includes any form of adaptation, such as turning a novel into a screenplay or creating a new version of a song.
  3. The Right to Distribute Copies: This right allows copyright owners to sell, rent, lease, or lend copies of their works to the public. It encompasses both physical and digital copies.
  4. The Right to Publicly Perform the Work: Copyright owners have the exclusive right to perform their work publicly, such as in the case of plays, music performances, and readings of literary works.
  5. The Right to Publicly Display the Work: This right allows copyright owners to display their works publicly. It applies to visual works such as paintings, posters, and photographs, including their digital images.
  6. The Right to Publicly Perform Sound Recordings via Digital Audio Transmission: Specifically for sound recordings, copyright owners have the right to control the public performance of their recordings through digital audio transmissions, such as streaming services.

These rights provide the foundation for copyright owners to protect their creations and to monetize their works if they choose. However, these rights are subject to certain limitations and exceptions, such as fair use, which allows for the use of copyrighted material without permission under specific circumstances, including for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.

When can I use works that are not mine?

Using works that are not yours typically requires permission from the copyright holder. However, there are several situations under which you can use copyrighted works without needing to obtain permission, thanks to various agreements, exceptions, and limitations within copyright law. Here are the primary circumstances:

  1. Licensing Agreements: Sometimes, the copyright holder may have already granted permission for certain types of uses through a licensing agreement. Examples include Creative Commons licenses, which allow for various uses of copyrighted works under specific conditions.
  2. Fair Use: In the United States, the fair use doctrine allows for the limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the copyright owner. Fair use typically covers uses such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. The determination of whether a particular use qualifies as fair use is based on a case-by-case analysis of four factors:
    • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.
    • The nature of the copyrighted work.
    • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.
    • The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
  3. Public Domain: Works that are in the public domain can be used without restriction. Copyright protection does not last indefinitely; once it expires, works enter the public domain. In the U.S., works published before 1923 are in the public domain, and as of my last update, works created in 1924 are also entering the public domain. Additionally, some authors choose to dedicate their works to the public domain.
  4. Educational Use: Copyright law often provides exceptions for educational institutions, allowing them to use copyrighted materials for teaching and learning under certain conditions. This is sometimes broader than fair use and may cover multiple copies for classroom use.
  5. Library and Archive Exceptions: Libraries and archives may have the right to copy and distribute copyrighted works without permission under specific circumstances, particularly for purposes such as preservation, research, or scholarship.
  6. Compulsory Licenses: For some types of works, copyright law allows others to use the copyrighted material without the copyright holder’s explicit permission, provided they pay a set fee. This is common in the music industry, where radio stations, streaming services, and others can use songs by paying a compulsory license fee.

It’s essential to understand the specifics of copyright law and these exceptions to ensure that your use of copyrighted works is legal. When in doubt, consulting with a professional in intellectual property law can provide clarity and prevent potential legal issues.

The duration of copyright protection varies depending on several factors, including when the work was created and the circumstances of its creation. Here’s a general breakdown according to current U.S. copyright law:

  1. Works Created After January 1, 1978: Copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. If the work is a joint work, the term lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author’s death.
  2. Anonymous Works, Pseudonymous Works, and Works Made for Hire: For works published anonymously or under a pseudonym, the duration of copyright is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter. The same duration applies to works made for hire (works created by an employee within the scope of employment or specially ordered or commissioned under certain specified conditions).
  3. Works Published Before 1978: Copyright protection for works published before 1978 was originally set for 28 years from the date of publication. However, it could be extended for a second term, making the total potential duration 95 years (28 years plus a 67-year extension) under current law, due to various extensions enacted by Congress.
  4. Works Created, But Not Published, Before 1978: These works are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years, with all works entering the public domain no earlier than December 31, 2002. If unpublished works had not entered the public domain before 2003, they are protected until at least December 31, 2047.

This framework ensures that copyright protection has a significant duration, providing authors and their heirs with exclusive rights to their creations for an extended period. After the copyright term expires, the work enters the public domain, allowing anyone to use, reproduce, and distribute the work without restriction.

What is statutory licensing?

Statutory licensing is a legal mechanism that allows individuals or entities to use copyrighted works without the direct permission of the copyright holder, under certain conditions and for specific uses, as defined by law. This system is established by statute, hence the name “statutory licensing.” It requires the user to pay a predetermined fee to the copyright owner or a designated collecting society, which then distributes the royalties to the copyright holders.

Statutory licensing is often applied in situations where obtaining individual permissions from copyright owners would be impractical or inefficient, such as broadcasting music on radio or TV, streaming music online, making and distributing phonorecords, and retransmitting broadcast signals via cable. The specific terms and rates of statutory licenses are typically set by a government authority or a regulatory body.

Key aspects of statutory licensing include:

  • Fixed Royalty Rates: The law prescribes specific royalty rates that users must pay to copyright owners, eliminating the need for individual negotiations.
  • Compulsory Nature: Copyright owners are required to allow the use of their works under a statutory license, provided the user complies with the terms of the license and pays the required fees.
  • Limited Scope: Statutory licensing applies only to certain types of works and uses thereof. It does not cover all copyrighted material or all potential uses.
  • Collection Societies: Often, the collection and distribution of royalties under a statutory license are managed by collective management organizations or copyright collecting societies, which act on behalf of copyright owners.

Statutory licensing plays a crucial role in industries where wide access to a large volume of copyrighted works is necessary for business operations, such as music streaming services, radio and television broadcasting, and cable retransmission. It simplifies the process of legally using copyrighted works, ensuring that copyright owners are compensated for their creations while facilitating broader access to cultural content for the public.

Copyright registration is the process of recording the details of a copyrighted work with the copyright office of a country, providing a public record of the copyright claim. In the United States, this is done through the U.S. Copyright Office, a part of the Library of Congress. While copyright protection is automatic upon the creation of a work in a tangible medium of expression, registration offers additional legal benefits and serves as prima facie evidence of copyright ownership in court.

The process involves submitting an application form, a nonrefundable filing fee, and a nonreturnable copy or copies of the work to be registered. For digital works, the submission can often be made online, which is faster and less expensive than mailing physical copies.

Key benefits of copyright registration include:

  • Legal Evidence: Registration serves as official evidence of copyright ownership, which is particularly valuable in litigation.
  • Public Record: It establishes a public record of the copyright, making it easier for others to identify the copyright owner and seek permission for use.
  • Infringement Lawsuits: Registration is necessary for copyright owners to file infringement lawsuits in U.S. federal court.
  • Statutory Damages and Attorney’s Fees: Registered works may qualify for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation, which might not be available if the work is unregistered.
  • U.S. Customs Protection: Registration allows copyright owners to record their copyrights with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection for assistance in blocking the importation of infringing copies.

Copyright registration is not mandatory for copyright protection, but it significantly enhances the legal rights and remedies available to copyright owners.

What if there is change in ownership? Document Recordation

If there is a change in the ownership of a copyrighted work, or if any exclusive rights under the copyright are transferred (either entirely or partially), this change should be documented through a process called “recordation” with the U.S. Copyright Office. Recordation provides a public record of the transfer or assignment of copyright, which is important for maintaining clear copyright ownership and ensuring that rights are recognized and enforceable.

The document recordation process involves submitting the following to the Copyright Office:

  1. A Completed Recordation Form: The specific form used depends on the nature of the document being recorded. The U.S. Copyright Office provides different forms for different types of transactions.
  2. A Nonrefundable Filing Fee: The Copyright Office charges a fee for the recordation of documents, which varies depending on the type of transaction and the number of works involved.
  3. An Original or Certified Copy of the Document that Evidences the Change in Ownership: This could be a contract, assignment, license, mortgage, or any other legal document that transfers copyright ownership or exclusive rights. The document must be legible and complete, including all relevant signatures.

Benefits of document recordation include:

  • Public Notice: Recordation provides public notice of the change in ownership, which can help prevent disputes about copyright ownership and can be important in copyright infringement litigation.
  • Legal Presumption: While not conclusive evidence, recorded documents are given a legal presumption of validity, which can be advantageous in legal proceedings.
  • Enhanced Enforcement: Recording a document with the Copyright Office can assist in protecting the rights against third parties, particularly in cases of infringement.
  • Security Interests: For transactions involving security interests, such as mortgages or liens on copyrights, recordation is necessary to make the interest enforceable against third parties.

It’s important to note that while copyright protection itself does not require registration, recording a change in ownership or exclusive rights can significantly strengthen the legal standing and enforceability of those rights.

The Copyright Office website,, is the definitive source of copyright information. If you need additional assistance, the Public Information Office is available to help. You can contact us online, call at (202) 707-3000 or 1-877-476-0778 (toll free), or visit the Office in Washington, DC, in the Library of Congress Madison Building. Staff is available Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., except federal holidays. Want to learn more about the Copyright Office and what we do? Visit our overview page, where you can discover how we have been helping the public since 1870.


What is Copyright?

Copyright is a legal right granted by law to the creator of original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, providing exclusive rights to use, reproduce, distribute, perform, display, and create derivative works.

How does one obtain Copyright?

Copyright protection is automatic upon the creation of a work fixed in a tangible medium of expression, such as writing it down or recording it. No formal registration is required to obtain copyright, but registering can provide additional legal benefits.

What works are eligible for Copyright protection?

While not required for protection, copyright registration offers advantages, such as the ability to bring infringement lawsuits in court and eligibility for statutory damages and attorney’s fees.

How long does Copyright last?

In the U.S., copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years for works created by individuals. For works made for hire, anonymous, or pseudonymous works, it lasts 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

What is Fair Use?

Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research, considering factors like the purpose of use and its effect on the work’s market.

Can Copyright be transferred or sold?

Yes, copyright owners can transfer all or some of their rights to others through agreements, such as licenses or assignments. These transactions should be recorded with the Copyright Office for public record.

What is the Public Domain?

The public domain consists of works whose copyright has expired, works not eligible for copyright, or works voluntarily dedicated to the public domain. Works in the public domain can be used freely by anyone.

How can one use copyrighted works without infringing?

You can use copyrighted works by obtaining permission from the copyright holder, using works in the public domain, or utilizing the fair use doctrine as applicable.

What are the consequences of Copyright infringement?

Infringement can lead to civil lawsuits, statutory damages, actual damages and profits lost, injunctions against further infringement, and, in severe cases, criminal penalties.

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