Copyright law offers legal protection for human creativity. The goal of copyright protection is described in the U.S. Constitution. “The Congress shall have the Power…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to the respective Writings and Discoveries.” U.S. Constitution, Art. I § 8, cl. 8. Today, copyright law is governed by the Copyright Revision Act of 1976, a restatement that took effect on January 1, 1978. In the U.S., copyright is a protection provided by the government to the authors of original works, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. The protection is available to both published and unpublished works. It is against the law for anyone to violate the owner’s protected rights.
Copyright protection arises automatically when three (3) criteria exist. The copyrighted work is original, fixed in a tangible medium, and consists of expression rather than ideas. Thereby, the rights include the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, publically perform or display, and or prepare derivative works. In other words, “original works of authorship” are protected. Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991); 17 U.S.C. § 102(a). Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is not required to secure protection; however, registration is recommended because historically registration was a jurisdictional requirement to sue for copyright infringement in U.S. District Court. A work created on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author’s life plus an additional 70 years after the author’s death. 17 U.S.C. § 302(b). There are certain defenses to copyright infringement. The exclusive rights of the copyright owner are not absolute. The defenses include: copyright licensing, fair use, first sale, and compulsory licenses and regulatory copyright.
First, I will address copyright licensing. Copyrights may be licensed through express licenses or implied licenses. An expressed license is a contract that clearly states the right to do certain things as they relate to the copyrighted work. Id. at § 106. Implied licenses arise according to surrounding facts and circumstances of a particular work, or according to certain circumstances involved in copying a particular work. In other words, for implied licenses, in the absence of a writing, based on the surrounding circumstances, the question is whether the copyright holder intended to give permission to use the work. Random House v. Rosetta Books, 150 F. Supp. 2d 613 (S.D.N.Y.), aff’d, 283 F.3d 490 (2d Cir. 2002); Asset Mktg. Sys., Inc. v. Gagnon, 542 F.3d 748 (9th Cir. 2008).
Third, under the First Sale Doctrine, 17 U.S.C. § 109, ownership of a physical copy of an item, such as a book or CD, permits the lending, reselling, disposing, etc. of the item; however, it does not permit reproducing the material, publically displaying or performing it, or otherwise engaging in any acts reserved for the copyright holder. Id. In other words, lawfully obtained copies can be sold without infringing the copyrighted work.
Fourth, there are compulsory licenses and regulatory copyright. Under compulsory licenses, copyright owners have no power to object to reuse of their copyrighted work. In such cases, Congress implements limitations on such copyrights. Qualifying users, generally with payment, may use the work as specified by statute. Regulatory copyright outlines industry specific rights for market-specific contexts, such as cover recordings for musical compositions, cable, and certain non-profit and charitable organizations. Special exemptions exist for non-profit organizations. Under 17 U.S.C. § 110, limitations on exclusive rights: exemption of certain performances and displays, some uses are exempt from infringement liability. The underlying rule for such exemptions is that such use of copyrighted works must be noncommercial. 17 U.S.C. § 110. Examples include: (i) § 110(2) distance learning and distance education via digital computer networks and (ii) § 110(4) use of copyrighted works for educational, religious, or charitable purposes, so long as there is no admission charge for the event at which the work is performed or displayed. Id.
Copyright can be a very complicated, and sometimes unclear, area of the law; however, some of the overarching themes are consistent throughout the statutes, cases, and opinions. Generally, noncommercial use of copyrighted material is treated differently. If your use of copyrighted material is for educational purposes, from which you derive no commercial, financial or otherwise business-related benefit, you may qualify for certain exemptions and or defenses. However, if the use of copyrighted material is used merely for “educational” purposes, it should be clearly marked as such.
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