Happy family

Find a legal form in minutes

Browse US Legal Forms’ largest database of 85k state and industry-specific legal forms.


A “copyright” offers protection for original works of authorship.  Copyright protection affords the author of a copyrighted work with specific rights that the author can give or sell to others or keep for him/herself.  The concept of copyright protection in the United States is set forth in the original U.S. Constitution which allows Congress to pass laws that promote and encourage the process of the useful arts.

The word copyright can be defined as a property right in an original work of authorship (such as a literary, musical, artistic, photographic, or film work) fixed in any tangible medium of expression, giving the holder the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, and display the work.  Copyright protection may be received regarding a wide range of creative, intellectual, or artistic forms or works.  These include poems, plays, and other literary works, movies, choreographic works (dances, ballets, etc.), musical compositions, audio recordings, paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, radio and television broadcasts.  The creator of the work has a limited monopoly on the work and can, with some exceptions, prohibit others from copying or displaying the work.  The United States copyright law is contained in Chapters 1 through 8 and 10 through 12 of Title 17 of the United States Code.

Works published after 1922, but before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication.  If the work was created, but not published, before 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.  However, even if the author died over 70 years ago, the copyright in an unpublished work lasts until December 31, 2002.  And if such a work is published before December 31, 2002, the copyright will last until December 31, 2047.

All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain.  The term public domain refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark or patent laws.  The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist.  Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.  Once a copyright expires, it is in the public domain and no longer has protection.  Works created by the federal government are also in the public domain.

A copyright is obtained simply by creating the work.  It comes into existence automatically on the date it is created.  However, in order to get federal protection of a copyright, the creator of the work has to file two copies of the work with the Copyright Office in Washington, D.C.

Copyright law is designed to create an incentive for creativity by allowing the author to profit from his work.  The Act tries to balance this need to protect the author with the public=s need for free and open discussion.  A copyright owner has the exclusive right to:

  • reproduce the work;
  • prepare derivative works, such as a script from the original work (e.g., movie script for Book The Rainmaker);
  • distribute copies or recordings of the work; and
  • publicly display the work in the case of paintings, sculptures and photographs
  • The Copyright Act contains several exemptions that allow a person or institution to use or copy a copyrighted work without the owner’s permission.  Three commonly used exemptions are:
  • the fair use doctrine which allows copying for such purposes such as teaching;
  • the right of libraries to make limited copies; and
  • certain performances and displays for teaching or religious purposes

The fair use doctrine allows reasonable use of copyrighted works (without requiring the author=s permission) for teaching, research, and news reporting.  The Federal Act states: A[T]he fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies . . . for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.

There are four important factors that must be looked at when determining whether or not the fair use doctrine applies:

  • the purpose 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 of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • the effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

If a work is a “work made for hire,” this means that a person was hired specifically to create the copyrighted work.  The employer of the creator of the work can register the copyright and is entitled to protection.

Inside Copyrights