This guide is intended to provide foundational information for SJR State faculty and staff. The information presented in this guide is intended only for informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice.
Sources will be attributed at the bottom of each page.
Copyright is codified in federal law, namely Title 17 of the U.S. Code.
As defined by the U.S. Copyright Office, "Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression." Content creators, termed "authors" in this definition, are often referred to as copyright "owners" or "holders" as well. The terms are used interchangeably in this guide.
Copyright is a form of intellectual property law that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights to its use and distribution. Simply put, when you create an original work—be it a poem, a photograph, a song, or a piece of software—you have the exclusive right to use, copy, and distribute that work, generally for a limited period of time. These rights are not absolute and are subject to limitations and exceptions, most notably the doctrine of "fair use," which we will delve into later.
The primary rationale behind copyright law is twofold:
Economic Incentive: By providing exclusive rights, copyright law aims to incentivize creators to produce works that contribute to societal advancement. The idea is that creators will be more likely to invest time and resources into creating new works if they can control and profit from them.
Promotion of Learning and Cultural Enrichment: While providing protections to creators, copyright law also aims to enrich society by promoting the dissemination of works for public consumption, hence exceptions like "fair use" exist.
Copyright law applies to a broad spectrum of creative works, including:
It's crucial to note that copyright does not protect ideas, facts, or methods, but rather the unique expression of those ideas. For example, you can't copyright the idea for a time-travel novel, but the specific text you write—your unique expression of that idea—is copyrightable.
As the U.S. Copyright Office explains, "Copyright is originality and fixation:"
Works are original when they are independently created by a human author and have a minimal degree of creativity. Independent creation simply means that you create it yourself, without copying. The Supreme Court has said that, to be creative, a work must have a “spark” and “modicum” of creativity. There are some things, however, that are not creative, like: titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; and mere listings of ingredients or contents. And always keep in mind that copyright protects expression, and never ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries.
A work is fixed when it is captured (either by or under the authority of an author) in a sufficiently permanent medium such that the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time. For example, a work is fixed when you write it down or record it.
What type of protection does copyright grant the owner? The U.S. Copyright Office states, "U.S. copyright law provides copyright owners with the following exclusive rights:
Copyright also provides the owner of copyright the right to authorize others to exercise these exclusive rights, subject to certain statutory limitations."
The first federal copyright law in the United States was enacted on May 31, 1790, and it was titled the "Copyright Act of 1790." This legislation was among the earliest actions taken by the newly formed U.S. Congress, demonstrating the importance that the Founding Fathers placed on the protection of intellectual property. The law was based on the intellectual property clause in the U.S. Constitution, which grants Congress the power "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."
The Copyright Act of 1790 granted American authors the exclusive right to "print, re-print, or publish their work" for a period of 14 years, with the option to renew the copyright for another 14 years if the author was still alive at the end of the first term. This was a significant departure from British copyright law at the time, which granted much longer terms and was generally more favorable to publishers than to authors.
The law was primarily concerned with books, maps, and charts; other types of creative works were not covered until later amendments and revisions to U.S. copyright law. Since that time, U.S. copyright law has evolved considerably, with significant amendments and overhauls reflecting changes in technology, international agreements, and societal views on intellectual property. The most recent major update is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, which adapted U.S. copyright law to the challenges and opportunities posed by digital technology. Let's look at that next.