Overview of U.S. Copyright Laws

Copyright is an intellectual property right that protects original works of authorship and provides the creator with exclusive rights. English law influenced the creation of U.S. copyright law. The most influential English law was the Statute of Anne. The 1710 act protected works for 14 years and was renewable for an additional 14 years upon expiration if the author was still living. The purpose of the act was to prevent booksellers from obtaining a monopoly and to create a public domain.

Early Copyright Laws

America adopted similar laws with the Copyright Act of 1790. The act was commissioned by Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which provided that authors and inventors shall have "the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." Congress granted authors, artists, and scientists exclusive rights to their work for 14 years and for 14 more years if renewed. When the Copyright Act was revised in 1831, it extended protection for 28 years with a 14-year renewal option.

The purpose of limiting copyright was to advance creativity while at the same time providing public access to the work. Copyright was not intended to create wealth. The Copyright Act was a reflection of Congress' interpretation of the Constitution. In 1834, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed Congress' intent: it ruled in Wheaton v. Peters that copyright was not perpetual, but was instead an exclusive right that could be limited in duration in order to promote creation and dissemination.

Current U.S. Copyright Laws

The revised Copyright Act of 1976 set in place many of the current laws governing copyright. Congress decided to codify the 1841 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing fair use as a defense to copyright infringement and to expand protection. Protection was provided for scope and subject matter of works, exclusive rights, copyright terms, copyright notice, copyright registration, copyright infringement, and infringement remedies and defenses.

Copyright protects published and unpublished creative works. Protection begins the moment an original work is fixed in tangible form. Authors of the work typically own copyright unless it is a work for hire or the rights are sold or transferred. Registration and copyright notice are unnecessary but both do provide advantages in copyright infringement lawsuits. Copyright holders have the right to do the following: distribute the work, make reproductions, create derivatives, and display and perform the work publicly.

Most Current, Copyrights from 1978 to Present Day: Works published after 1978 receive protection for the life of the author plus 70 years and work for hire is protected for 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from creation.

Previous Copyright Laws, 1923-1977: Works created between January 1, 1923 and December 31, 1977 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication.

Early Copyright Laws 1923 and before: Works published before 1923 are in the public domain.

Because technology has changed, so has the scope of protected works. Copyrightable works not only include literature, but music, movies, plays, videos, sound recordings, software, choreography, architectural designs, sculptures, and paintings are protected. Copyright, however, does not protect ideas, facts, names, pen names, titles, slogans, extemporaneous speeches, standardized material, and government works.

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