Introduction to Copyright Law

Whether you are a creator or someone who uses the creative works of others, it is important to understand copyright law.  You may need to protect your own work, or you will need to know how to obtain permission to use others works.  Here is some basic knowledge of copyright law but you should always consult with a lawyer before pursuing legal action.

What is Copyrightable?

Two things are required for a copyright.  The work must be original, and the work must be written down, recorded, or otherwise fixed such as filmed, painted, typed, etc…  Some examples are books, magazines, newspapers, poems, songs, plays, photographs, paintings, sculptures, films, and designs.  Letters, speeches, and fictional characters are also copyrightable.

Fun Fact: A blog is another form of recording something; therefore, everything you post on your blog is copyrighted.

What is Not Copyrightable?

Though the requirements for copyrights are broad, there are several things that are not eligible for copyright.  Items that are excluded from the Copyright Act are ideas, plots, concepts, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, principles, and discoveries.  Facts are not copyrightable; however, a compilation of facts could be copyrightable.  Only the manner and order the facts are presented is copyrightable.  Names, titles, short phrases, Scenes-A-Faire, and stock characters are not copyrightable.

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

The Copyright Act of 1976, which took effect on January 1, 1978, states a copyright lasts the entire life of the author plus 50 years.  The Sonny Bono Act of 1998 extended this to the life of the author plus 70 years.  What about anything created prior to 1978?  Anything published between 1964 and 1977 was given a 28-year copyright with an automatic 67-year extension for a total of 95 years, only if the copyright holder filed their renewal application.  Anything published between 1923 and 1963 was given a 28-year copyright with the option to renew for another 67 years for a total of 95 years.  Everything prior to 1923 is considered Public Domain.  Why is this important?  95 years after 1923 is 2018.  Every year from now on will add new works into the Public Domain.

Fair Use and Parody of Copyrighted Works

There are special situations where a copyrighted work can be used without permission.  The first is called fair use.  These include criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.  The second is called parody, which is a form of commentary about an existing work or its author.  If something is borrowed from one work to comment on another, this is considered satire and may be copyright infringement.

Public Domain

Public Domain means the copyright has expired or one never existed for the work.  As mentioned earlier, everything prior to 1923 is Public Domain.  Works with a copyright prior to 1964 that did not renew their copyright are Public Domain.  The film Night of the Living Dead (1961) is in the Public Domain because the copyright holder did not renew the copyright and it expired.  Everything published between 1923 and 1977 has a maximum copyright protection of 95 years.  95 years after 1923 is 2018.  This means everything published in 1923 that was still under copyright protection fell into the Public Domain on January 1, 2019.  Everything published in 1924 fell into the Public Domain on January 1, 2020; and so on and so forth.  Some authors place their works in the Public Domain.  There is no official database of Public Domain works so it will require some research to determine if a specific work is in the Public Domain.

For more information involving copyrights, trademarks, and other entertainment rights, obtain a copy of Joy R Butler’s book The Permission Seeker’s Guide Through the Legal Jungle.  Also, always remember to back up and keep several copies of your intellectual property.

Copyright Infringement

One thing to remember, if you believe someone has infringed on your copyright, “A certificate of registration (or a rejection of an application for copyright) is a prerequisite for U.S. authors seeking to initiate a suit for copyright infringement in federal district court.” This is a direct quote from the U.S. Copyright Office FAQ Infringement webpage.

Another quote from this webpage (and this statement applies to me as an individual as well), “…we are prohibited from giving specific legal advice on the rights of persons, whether in connection with particular uses of copyrighted works, cases of alleged domestic or foreign copyright infringement, contracts between authors and publishers, or other matters of a similar nature.”