United States copyright law


The power to enact United States copyright law is granted in Article One, section 8, of the United States Constitution, which states:

The Congress shall have Power...To promote the Progress of Science...by securing for limited Times to Authors...the exclusive Right to their respective Writings ...

Key laws regulating U.S. copyrights include:

Key international agreements affecting U.S. copyright law include:

Copyrights currently last for seventy years after the death of an author, or seventy-five to ninety-five years in the case of works of corporate authorship and works first published before January 1, 1978. All works from before 1923 are in the public domain. Some material from as recently as 1963 has entered the public domain but some as old as 1923 remains copyrighted if renewals were filed. No additional material will enter the public domain until 2019 due to changes in the applicable laws.

History and details

The U.S. Congress passed the first such copyright law in 1790. The Act secured an author the exclusive right to publish and vend "maps, charts and books" for a term of 14 years, with the right of renewal for one additional 14 year term if the author was still alive. The act did not regulate other kinds of writings, such as music, movies, or newspapers and specifically noted that it did not prohibit copying the works of foreign authors. The vast majority of writings were never copyrighted - between 1790 and 1799, of 13,000 titles published in the United States, only 556 were copyrighted.

Copyright law has been modified many times since to encompass new technologies such as music recording, to extend the duration of protection, and to make other changes. US courts have interpreted this clause of the Constitution to say that the ultimate purpose of copyrights is to encourage the production of creative works for the public benefit, and that therefore the interests of the public are primary over the interests of the author when the two conflict. These rulings have since been formalized into fair use laws and decisions. Certain attempts by copyright owners to restrict uses beyond the rights provided for by copyright law may also subject them to the copyright misuse doctrine, preventing enforcement against infringers.

The distinction between "idea" and "expression" is a fundamental part of US law, but it is not always clear. A paper describing an industrial process is copyrightable; it may not be reproduced by anyone else without the author's permission. But the process itself (which is an idea rather than a specific expression) is not copyrightable, though it may be patentable. Another author is free to describe the same process in his own words without violating copyright law (though he might not be able to use the process if it is patented; the articles on Fractal transform and LZW are examples of this situation). Courts disagree on how much of the story and characters of a copyrighted novel or film should be considered copyrightable expression. From the 1976 Copyright Act (17 US 102):

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

Facts are considered synonymous to "ideas" or "discoveries" under this law and are not copyrightable. However, section 103 of the Copyright Act allows for the protection of "compilations," where the "creative" or "original" act involves the selection (deciding which things to include or exclude), and arrangement (how they are shown and in what order). The protection is limited only to the selection and arrangement, not to the facts themselves, which may be freely copied. The Supreme Court decision in Feist v. Rural further made clear the requirements that a compilation be original in its composition, in denying protection to telephone "white pages". The Feist court rejected what was known as the "sweat of the brow" doctrine, in ruling that no matter how much work was necessary to create a compilation, a non-selective collection of facts ordered in a non-creative way is not subject to copyright protection.

Sometimes the identification of a work's "author" is unclear, and there are many court rulings applying to those situations as well. For example, by US Code Title 17, Chapter 2, §201.b, work done "for hire", that is, specifically at the direction of an employer who pays for the work, is, by default, the property of the employer. In other words, if a company hires a writer to write something specific, the company, not the writer, is considered the "author" of that work and owns the copyrights. Any other work done by that writer on his own without compensation and without using company resources usually is still owned by the writer (though employers often try to claim ownership of such work).

Copyrights may be sold, given, or licensed. For example, an author might license the right to publish a translation of a book (considered a derivative work) to a foreign publisher, charging a fee for the license. However, US copyright allows an author (or certain heirs defined by law) to terminate a copyright transfer during the period from 35 to 40 years after the transfer (for transfers made 1978 or later) or 56 to 61 years after the onset of copyright (for transfers made prior to 1978). An agreement made by the author to contract away his right to terminate the transfer is not enforceable, and neither is an attempt by an author to do so on behalf of his heirs.

In the U.S., copyright law is administered by the United States Copyright Office, a part of the Library of Congress. More complete details of US copyright law can be retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Title 17, Section 105, United States Code provides that:

Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government, but the United States Government is not precluded from receiving and holding copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise.

The intent of the section is to place in the public domain all work of the United States Government, which is defined in 17 U.S.C. sec 101 (1994) as work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person's official duties.

The United States became a Berne Convention signatory in 1988, and the treaty entered into force with respect to the US on March 1, 1989. The U.S. is also a party to TRIPS, which itself requires compliance with Berne provisions, and is enforceable under the WTO dispute resolution process. To meet the treaty requirements, protections were extended to architecture (where previously only building plans were protected from copying, not buildings), and certain moral rights of visual artists. Some legal scholars question whether the U.S. is fully in compliance with TRIPS or Berne requirements, particularly given the far reach of the fair use defense.

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