American Copyright and Intellectual Property Law Basics

In 2015, the United States Copyright Office approved almost 500,000 claims and processed over 1 million copyright petitions. Copyright law protects authors’ intellectual published property rights. The United States legislature has considered intellectual property protection since the Constitution’s penning. As the publishing world changes, so do the laws protecting published works, increasing copyright law complexity. Consequently, copyright litigation takes place frequently in the United States.

Copyright Protection in the United States

Intellectual property is a work that an individual or entity creates. This property may include things such as books, music or ideas. Copyright laws protect musical and literary intellectual creations whether the authors created the pieces for personal, artistic or business applications. Copyright law assigns ownership rights, which the owner can then license to other individuals or entities for publication.

Intellectual property owners can also decide how others can use their works. An author can choose to allow licensees to alter and republish the work; only republish the work as it is; or completely sell all rights to a work – in which case the buyer now owns all rights to exploit the work as they please.

How Copyright Law Evolved

Copyright law has its origins in the United States Constitution. To foster socioeconomic advancement in America, the Founding Fathers penned a clause in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution that protects creative works. The Founding Fathers also gave Congress the power to protect these works moving into the future.

Legislators enacted copyright law with the Copyright Act of 1976. An intellectual property owner can register their creation at any time; however, they cannot pursue damages unless they have filed for a formal rights declaration with the United States Copyright Office. Current copyright law does allow others to use or mention works for academic, reporting and certain nonprofit purposes.

Works Protected by Copyright Law

Today, copyright protection covers many intellectual properties, including:

  • poetry
  • motion pictures
  • compact discs
  • video games
  • stage plays
  • video discs
  • paintings
  • sheet music
  • recorded music
  • books
  • software programs
  • sculptures
  • images
  • dance routines
  • building designs

The United States Copyright Office stipulates certain criteria that copyright petitioners must meet to earn intellectual property right recognition. The works must have a physical form, meaning that the creator must fashion their work in some way that others can view. This physical form can exist temporarily or permanently. Originality is another criterion that creators must meet to copyright a work. Finally, the Copyright Office must deem that the work is creative. There is no firm guideline for this rule, but the copyright petitioner must have worked in some way to produce the piece. The Copyright Office judges whether a piece is creative and has final say, determining this factor on a case-by-case basis.

The Labyrinthine World of Copyright Law

Depending on when an author created their work, copyright protection lasts for varying periods. The governing factors on how long copyright protection lasts are somewhat convoluted. If a creator published a work before 1977, copyright protection lasts for the creator’s lifetime plus 70 years. If an author created the work for an employer or a publisher circulates the work without author credit, the protection lasts between 95 and 120 years. After this time the work becomes public domain and no longer has copyright protection.

Any work published before 1923 is now available in the public domain. If an author published a work before 1922, but after 1978, copyright protection shields the work from public domain and infringement for 95 years from the publication date; however, if an author created a work before 1978 without publishing it, copyright law protects the work for the author’s life plus an additional 70 years. If an author died more than 70 years ago, and a publisher printed the work before Dec. 31, 2002 – the work is copyright protected until Dec. 31, 2047.

The circumstances surrounding when an author publishes a work, what rules apply to the work and who actually created a work raise challenging issues for interested parties. Many individuals have sought legal remedies specifically to resolve these matters. Further complicating the copyright schema is the fact that copyright laws change over time to reflect current intellectual property interests.

An example as to how copyright law changes to protect society’s interests can be seen in the following situation. Before 1976 authors and publishers could only claim ownership rights to works that they printed on paper or in books. With the motion picture industry’s growth in the late 70s, the need to protect every film frame arose, prompting the Copyright Office to revise what constituted a published work; therefore, the legislature ratified the law that any work in published form – no matter how brief – is intellectual property. Today, this protection even extends to the random access memory (ROM) that exists briefly inside a computer chip.

Another copyright complexity is that copyright protection officially begins when an author actually creates a work. Additional protections are in place only once the author petitions the Copyright Office for formal ownership recognition.

In Summary

America has recognized creative protections since the country’s founding. United States copyright laws protect works created by all individuals and entities. These copyright protections continually adapt to the creative community’s needs. As intellectual property law for published works continues to increase in complexity, copyright litigation remains an ongoing challenge for the United States judicial system.

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