Scope of Copyright Protection

Despite the broad list of rights and abilities that copyright holders enjoy, there are important limitations on those rights.

If you have written a book, composed a piece of music, designed an architectural rendering, or written a piece of software—among other creative works—you might wish to protect your intellectual property from theft. Fortunately, copyright registration offers many protections, to prevent third parties from infringing on your creations.

What Rights and Protections a Copyright Gives Its Owner

What rights does a copyright holder enjoy? Quite a few. The Copyright Act of 1976 (specifically, 17 U.S.C. § 106) gives the creator of original works of authorship certain exclusive rights over their creations, including:

  • to reproduce the work (in other words, the exclusive ability to make copies)
  • to prepare derivative works based upon the work (that is, the exclusive ability to make new works based closely on the initial work)
  • to distribute copies of the work to the public (meaning the exclusive ability to make copies or present versions of your work to the world)
  • to perform the work publicly (the exclusive ability to play a movie or perform a screenplay, script, or song for an audience)
  • to display the copyrighted work publicly (the exclusive ability to display images, photographs, or other protected works to the world), and
  • in the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission (the exclusive ability to perform any recordings to the world).

The copyright owner may also authorize others to exercise these rights. Like any other property right (such as with real property or personal property), copyrights can be sold or assigned. In other words, you can elect to give your copyright—and all of these expansive rights listed above—to someone else, typically for money.

You can also "rent" those rights through an assignment, which often involves royalty payments.

In either case, you would need a written agreement with the other party, describing the scope of rights being sold or assigned.

Limitations of Copyright Ownership

Despite the broad list of rights and abilities that copyright holders enjoy, there are important limitations on those rights.

First, consider the duration of copyright protection. How long does copyright last? Not forever.

For works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection will endure for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. In the case of a joint work, the term lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author's death.

For anonymous and pseudonymous works and works made for hire, the term will be 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the year of creation, whichever expires first.

A second important limitation is the doctrine of fair use, which allows others to use portions of copyrighted works for purposes such as reviews, commentary, news, and scholarship. In other words, a third party can use your work without permission if the usage fits into the manner of fair use (as described in 17 U.S.C. § 107).

Third, items which are not copyrightable, such as titles, names, common facts and ideas are not protected. You would not be able to claim copyright over a short phrase, nor would you be able to obtain copyright over a mere idea for a creative work. For example, the idea for a storybook about a wizard is not protectable; the finished version of Harry Potter—an idea that has been reduced to writing—is protectable.

Fourth, some works are in the public domain and may be used by anyone. This includes works where the copyright has expired. As a broad rule, the copyright has expired for all works published in the United States before 1924. For such works (with some exceptions), anyone is free to use them without obtaining permission.

As you can see, copyright law provides an extensive scope of protection and powerful bundle of rights to those who create original works. However, those rights are not unlimited.

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