What are Copyright Laws? - Definition & Overview

Instructor: Shawn Grimsley
If you have ever written anything original in your life, you're protected by copyright laws. In this lesson, you'll learn about copyright laws and some of their key concepts. A short quiz follows the lesson.

Definition

A copyright is an intellectual property right granted by a government that gives the owner exclusive right to use, with some limited exceptions, original expressive work. Examples of materials entitled to copyright protection include original works of fiction, non-fiction, music, architectural design, artistic paintings, and sculptures. Copyright law in the United States is governed by the Copyright Act of 1976.

Conceptual Framework

In order to receive copyright protection, a piece of work must meet the following requirements:

  1. Original expression: The work must a unique expression of thought or idea that is not already published in the public domain. Basically, the work must be significantly new and different from other works. For example, you cannot rip the title page off of a Harry Potter book, rename it Harold Zotter and claim a copyright over the material. You also should note that you cannot copyright an idea, just the expression of an idea. For example, you can't copyright the idea of superstring theory, but you can have a copyright on your essay explaining superstring theory.
  2. Reduced to Tangible Form: You must reduce your work into a tangible form (a physical form), such as printing your novel or writing music onto sheet paper or putting it in an audio recording.

If you hold a copyright over a piece of work, your exclusive rights include:

  • Reproducing the work
  • Creating derivative work from your original work, such as a sequel to your novel
  • Distributing copies of the work - in other words, selling or giving away your work to others
  • Performing your work, such as reading a chapter of your book at a local library event
  • Displaying your work, such as showing your sculpture at a local art gallery

Of course, you are free to license or sell the copyright to your own work. You don't have to transfer all your rights. For example, an artist may give an art gallery permission to show the artist's work but not to reproduce the work. You may give a magazine a license to publish your short story or commentary but only for a one-time publication.

Registration

  • You do not have to register your work for copyright protection. You actually are protected by copyright law the moment your original expression is reduced to a tangible form.
  • You can register your work at any time.
  • Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is required if you want to pursue a court action to stop copyright infringement.
  • A copyright is effective during the life of the author plus 70 years, but can be renewed in certain circumstances.

Fair Use Doctrine

A very important exception to copyright protection is the fair use doctrine. If you have ever paraphrased or quoted the work of someone else, you have taken advantage of the fair use doctrine. The doctrine allows you to make some limited use of a copyrighted material in specific circumstances. Whether a particular use is covered under the fair use doctrine depends on a combination of several factors, including the amount of copyrighted material used, whether the use was for profit, and what type of economic effect the use has on the copyright holder. Again, a classic example of fair use is a student or scholar utilizing the research of another scholar in an academic paper.

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