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An Introduction to Copyright Law

When people create original works, they are protected by copyright law. This law lasts for a limited time, and it provides the work's creator with certain exclusive rights. The goal of copyright law is to protect created works from theft. In turn, this protection is meant to encourage creativity and the continued creation of new works that will ideally be made available to the public. To best understand the law, it is helpful to understand some of its history and facts.

The first copyright statute in the United States was enacted in Connecticut on Jan. 8, 1783. Five years later, in June of 1788, the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Within the Constitution, Article I, Section 8 contains the foundation for copyright law and protection. This section of Article I states that Congress has 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." Two years later, the first federal copyright law was enacted. This law provided 14 years of protection to works such as charts, books, and maps.

Over time, numerous other additions and revisions have been made to the copyright law. For example, the first general revision was made in 1831 so that it could include musical compositions. In addition, the original length of the copyright term was increased from 14 to 28 years. Another major extension to the law took place in 1856, when protections were added for public performances and dramatic compositions. Photographs and photo negatives received protection in March of 1865, with another general revision of the law taking place in 1870. Other important changes include the Copyright Act of 1976, which was the fourth general copyright law revision. This was a significant occurrence, as it increased copyright terms to the life of the author plus 50 years. This change, however, only affects works that were created on or after Jan. 1, 1978, which was the date the law took effect. Since then, the law has been amended to include the copyrighting of computer programs and architectural works and to extend the terms to the length of the author's life plus 70 years.

Today, eligible works may receive protection under copyright law regardless of whether they are available to the public or kept private. To receive copyright protection, works must be fixed in a medium of expression that is tangible. This includes paintings, literary works, photographs, software, and movies. A work that meets this specific requirement has copyright protection immediately upon being fixed to its tangible medium of expression. Things that are not protected by copyright law include ideas, systems, slogans, titles, facts, research, or works in the public domain. When something falls within the public domain, it has exceeded the copyright terms and is available to the public. Eligibility for copyright protection also requires the work to be original, and it must demonstrate a degree of creativity. Copyright registration is not required to receive protection; however, doing so both creates a record and proves that the copyright is valid. In addition, it is often necessary if a creator wishes to file a copyright infringement lawsuit later in the federal courts.

People with copyright-eligible works are afforded a number of rights, including the exclusive right to make copies of or sell the original work. Copyright owners may also perform or display their work publicly, or they can authorize others to do so. Additionally, copyright owners are given the right to control the changing, modifying, editing, or other alteration of their work into something new. According to the law, they also have the right of attribution, meaning that they must be given credit for their work if it is used elsewhere; however, this right typically only extends to works of fine art, such as photographs, sculptures, and paintings.

The History of U.S. Copyright Law

The Importance of Copyright Law

Rights Under Copyright Law

What Can and Cannot Be Copyrighted

Public Domain