Understanding and Applying Copyright

Copyright law protects original works of authorship. The array of tangible media includes literary, musical, dramatic and artistic works; architecture, software, poetry, books, movies and songs all fall under the artistic umbrella. Ideas are not protected under copyright; however, the expression of these ideas is. Published and unpublished works are protected as long as they exist in tangible form.

A federal statute, the Copyright Act of 1976, grants five important rights to copyright owners:

  1. The reproduction right prohibits anyone other than the owner from making unauthorized copies of the work.

For example, you are a graduate student preparing a master’s thesis analyzing Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay Pulp Fiction, and you copy sections of text into the thesis for reference. While it may seem harmless, without the proper authorization, you have committed copyright infringement under the reproduction right.

2. The owner has the right to make a transformation or adaptation on the original work and copyright it.


Photo via Horia Vorlan on Flickr

For instance, a movie could be based on a novel, or a translation of an earlier work. Other works that fall into this category are musical arrangements, dramatizations, sound recordings or fictionalizations. If you work for Apple and develop a newer version of a software program that Apple released a year ago, you and Apple would legally meet this requirement.

  1. The distribution right gives the owner the sole right to distribute the work to the public, whether by selling it, leasing it or giving it away.

This is particularly important in that it prohibits unauthorized distribution by third parties. Congress has enacted additional limitations to this doctrine in recent years. Every time a song is converted to an MP3 and downloaded for free on one of the many websites available, the distribution right is violated.

  1. The public performance right gives the owner some control over the performance of literary, dramatic, musical, choreographic, pantomime, audio-visual and motion picture works.

Often referred to as media copyright, this facet of the law defines public as a “place open to the public or at a place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances are gathered.”

For example, if you rent a video and then show that video in your church basement to a hundred children without obtaining permission from the copyright owner, you have violated the public performance right. The exception to this is in the concept of fair use, which comes into play in the education field. Schools may purchase a Public Performance License that allows limited use of copyrighted materials in a classroom setting.

  1. The “public display right” controls the display of literary, sculptural, dramatic, musical, choreographic, pantomimes, pictorial and graphical works, as well as movie stills.

For example, you may be a small business owner in the process of developing a logo for your new company. In the process of searching Google Images, you discover the perfect image. Innocently ignoring the “all rights reserved” notation, you download the image, photoshop the copyright notation out and use it in your new logo. You have just committed illegal copyright infringement under the reproduction right.

Copyright is only one of four forms of protection that the U.S. Constitution provides to intellectual property:

The government also provides legal protection via trademark, patent and trade secret law. Copyright is one of the most common because you can use its protections without registering property with the Library of Congress’ Copyright Office. Though, in the event of copyright infringement, you will receive more governmental assistance if you’ve registered.

A patent differs from a copyright by protecting an invention, which must be a product or process that offers a new solution to the marketplace. Patent law gives the owner the rights to production, distribution and sale of the invention.

Copyright law protects original works of authorship. The array of tangible media includes literary, musical, dramatic and artistic works; architecture, software, poetry, books, movies and songs all fall under the artistic umbrella. Ideas are not protected under copyright; however, the expression of these ideas is. Published and unpublished works are protected as long as they exist in tangible form.

For more interesting reading on copyright:

The U.S. Copyright Office’s official position on Fair Use

The U.S. Copyright Office’s FAQs on Copyright Law

An in-depth list of case studies on intellectual property for small businesses

Copyright Crash Course Online Tutorial

Comprehensive Tutorial on Copyright and Public Domain

Media Copyright Tutorial from the American Society of Media Photographers