Basics of Copyright
What is copyright?
Copyright is the lawful right of an author, artist, composer or other creator to control the use of his or her work by others. Generally speaking, a copyrighted work may not be duplicated, disseminated, or appropriated by others without the creator’s permission. The public display or performance of copyrighted works is similarly restricted.
There are exceptions to this rule—notably the fair use doctrine discussed in the following Section—but generally the unauthorized use of a copyrighted work is copyright infringement, and may subject the infringer to civil and criminal penalties under federal law.
The present Copyright Act dates from 1978, but copyright is an ancient doctrine, with its roots in Elizabethan England. The framers of the Constitution authorized Congress to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors . . . the exclusive right to their respective writings . . . .” Today, copyright law goes far beyond “writings” narrowly construed. It extends to literary, dramatic and artistic works, musical compositions and computer programs.
Why is copyright necessary?
On the other hand, we want society as a whole to benefit from new ideas and information, and so copyright protection is limited. Copyright protects only the form in which ideas and information are expressed. Copyrights expire after a certain period of time. And the law allows certain limited uses of copyrighted material by others, without the creator’s permission. The most important such use is “fair use,” which is discussed in the next Section.
What can be copyrighted?
Broadly speaking, one can copyright any original work of authorship that can be “fixed in any tangible medium of expression,” such as written on paper, or encoded on disk or tape, or recorded on film. This includes fiction and nonfiction writings, poetry, musical compositions (words and music alike), sound recordings, photographs, paintings and drawings, sculpture, architectural works, databases, audiovisual works such as movies, and multimedia works such as those on compact discs. Computer programs can be copyrighted, and almost always are. Unless a program is clearly denoted “freeware,” you should assume it is subject to copyright protection.
Unlike a patent, the degree of creativity necessary to qualify for a copyright is very modest. Virtually any original work—even a casual letter, or a compilation of information that involves some originality in selection or arrangement, such as a directory, an anthology, or a bibliography—can be copyrighted.
What does copyright protect?
Copyright does not protect ideas, nor does it protect facts. It protects only the form in which ideas or facts are expressed. For example, you may read a copyrighted paper and appropriate its ideas, or facts it conveys, into your own work without violating the copyright. However, you may not reproduce the actual text of the paper (unless fair use or another exception to copyright protection applies), nor may you evade this prohibition simply by changing some words or thoroughly paraphrasing the content.