Copyrights




What is protected?

Creative and intellectual works are protected by U. S. and international law. Copyright law, which is mostly civil, not criminal, has two main purposes:

  • to protect the author's right to obtain commercial
    benefit from valuable work
  • to protect the author's general right to control
    how his creation is used.

Examples of protected work

  • literature
    (Ex.- novels, short stories)
  • journalistic reports
    (Ex. - newspaper articles, TV news reports, magazine articles)
  • musical compositions
    (Ex. - music written for singing groups and bands)
  • theatrical scripts
    (Ex. - scripts for plays, comedy routines, soap operas)
  • choreography
    (Ex. - the steps in dance, ice skating, gymnastic routines)
  • visual artwork
    (Ex. - paintings, drawings, photographs)
  • architectural designs
    (Ex. - designs of buildings, bridges, roads)
  • motion pictures
    (Ex. - movies, videos)
  • computer software
    (Ex. - games, word processors, drawing programs)
  • multimedia digital creations
    (Ex. - CDs containing Encyclopedias, games, databases)
  • audio and video recordings
    (Ex. - videos and CDs containing music and other entertainment)
  • the text, graphics and design of web pages
    (Ex. - Unique web page pictures and layouts for the sites of individuals, companies and institutions)

To be protected, those creations must be recorded in tangible form such as on paper, on a digital recording or on a web page. Simple facts are not copyrighted, but content that comes from the presentation, organization and conclusions derived from facts is protected. Deriving a work based on someone else's creative work is illegal without that person's permission. An example of doing this would be to write a story based on the characters in Star Trek.

A copyright gives the owner the exclusive right to

  • print,
  • perform,
  • distribute,
  • copy,
  • and sell his right to do all of the above.

How do I copyright something?

A copyright is provided automatically to the author as soon as the work is created -- the author does not have to formally register the work. A notice, however, gives a warning to the public and helps the author gain more money in damages if there is a civil suit. A notice should include the word "Copyright" and/or a C in a circle, the date, and the author/owner. Your copyright might say, for example,

Copyright © Bubba Smith, November, 2001

To strengthen a legal copyright even more (and before starting a copyright lawsuit) creators must register their works with the U.S. Copyright Office. In reality, though, if the work is unregistered and has no real commercial value, it usually gets little protection from the civil courts.

How long does a copyright last?

Any work produced in the U.S. after 1978, registered or not, is protected for 50 years beyond the life of the author. For works created between 1950 and 1978 the copyright lasts 75 years. For works created before 1950, it lasts for 28 years but could have been renewed for another 28 years. When copyrights expire, they go into the public domain where they can be copied freely by anyone. Documents published by the U.S. government are also in the public domain.

Fair Use

A large exception to copyright protection is the "fair use" provision of the copyright laws. Copying a short excerpt from a work without permission is allowed for worthy social purposes such as:

  • news reports
    (Ex. - a reporter quotes from a book about a famous scandal)
  • comment and criticism
    (Ex. - a film critic shows a film clip as part of a review)
  • parody
    (Ex. - a comedian makes fun of a speech given by a famous person)
  • teaching and research
    (Ex. - a teacher distributes copies of a poem to illustrate a lesson)

There are no legal specifications of how much and when one can copy under the fair use provision, only the four guidelines listed below. When fair use is claimed in a lawsuit, the courts consider the following factors:

  • The purpose and nature of the use -- Is the copy of the work being used commercially or for nonprofit purposed?
  • The nature of the copyrighted work -- The permissions for copying videos are different than those for copying text.
  • The amount and importance of the material used -- Copying a 50 word paragraph from a book would be acceptable but the same paragraph from a 100 word essay would not. If the excerpt is critically important to the work, however, then copying it is not allowed.
  • The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the work -- Sometimes an innocent, non-commercial use can hurt the market for a work. An example would be a fan's web site that offers entire songs on-line. Although the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 allows consumers to record music for private, noncommercial use, this law may prove useless in the future. As a result of the problems with trading music on sites such Napster, the entertainment industry is developing ways to insert anti-copying codes into their digital recordings. This will protect intellectual property from the new technologies of digital copying, be it innocent or not.

Online resources


A version of this page for students

TeacherTECH 2001       CEEE GirlTECH       Rice University

This page was developed through GirlTECH , a teacher training program sponsored by
the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education (CEEE) with support from
the National Science Foundation through EOT-PACI.

Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Christopher.
Updated: June 12, 2001