Copyright laws grant to authors, artists, composers, and publishers the exclusive right to produce and distribute expressive and original work. Only expressive pieces, or writings, may receive copyright protection. A writing need not be words on paper: In copyright law, it could be a painting, sculpture, or other work of art. The writing element merely requires that a work of art, before receiving copyright protection, must be reduced to some tangible form. This may be on paper, on film, on audiotape, or on any other tangible medium that can be reproduced (i.e., copied).
The writing requirement ensures that copyrighted material is capable of being reproduced. Without this requirement, artists could not be expected to know whether they were infringing on the original work of another. The writing requirement also enforces the copyright rule that ideas cannot be copyrighted: Only the individualized expression of ideas can be protected.
Copyrighted material must be original. This means that there must be something sufficiently new about the work that sets it apart from previous similar works. If the variation is more than trivial, the work will merit copyright protection.
Functionality can be a factor in copyright law. The copyrights to architectural design, for example, are generally reserved for architectural works that are not functional. If the only purpose or function of a particular design is utilitarian, the work cannot be copyrighted. For instance, a person may not copyright a simple design for a water spigot. However, if a person creates a fancy water spigot, the design is more likely to be copyrightable.
Copyrighted material can receive varying degrees of protection. The scope of protection is generally limited to the original work that is in the writing. For example, assume that an artist has created a sculpture of the moon. The sculptor may not prevent others from making sculptures of the moon. However, the sculptor may prevent others from making sculptures of the moon that are exact replicas of his own sculpture.
Copyright protection gives the copyright holder the exclusive right to (1) reproduce the copyrighted work; (2) create derivative works from the work; (3) distribute copies of the work; (4) perform the work publicly; and (5) display the work. The first two rights are infringed whether they are violated in public or in private. The last three rights are infringed only if they are violated in public. Public showing is defined under the Copyright Act of 1976 as a performance or display to a "substantial number of persons" outside of friends and family (17 U.S.C.A. § 101).
Infringement of copyright occurs whenever someone exercises the exclusive rights of the copyright owner without the owner's permission. The infringement need not be intentional. Copyright owners usually prove infringement in court by showing that copying occurred and that the copying amounted to impermissible appropriation. These showings require an analysis and comparison of the copyrighted work and the disputed work. Many general rules also relate to infringement of certain works. For example, a character created in a particular copyrighted work may not receive copyright protection unless he or she is developed in great detail and a character in the disputed work closely resembles that character.
The most important exception to the exclusive rights of the copyright holder is the "fair use" doctrine. This doctrine allows the general public to use copyrighted material without permission in certain situations. To varying extents, these situations include some educational activities, some literary and social criticism, some PARODY, and news reporting. Whether a particular use is fair depends on a number of factors, including whether the use is for profit; what proportion of the copyrighted material is used; whether the work is fictional in nature; and what economic effect the use has on the copyright owner.
The rise in electronic publication in the late twentieth century, particularly the widespread use of the INTERNET since the mid 1990s, caused new concerns in the area of copyright. A web site called Napster, which provided a file-sharing system whereby users could trade electronic music files, became one of the most popular sites on the Internet. The company had an estimated 16.9 million worldwide users, and the system accommodated about 65 million downloads. The Recording Industry Association of America sued Napster, eventually causing Napster to close down.
During the late 1990s, Congress enacted a series of laws that had significant impacts on the law of copyright. In 1998, Congress enacted the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Pub. L. No. 105-298, 112 Stat. 2827 (17 U.S.C.A. §§ 101 et seq.), which extended the terms of existing and new copyrights by 20 years, against the protests of several LOBBYING groups. Also in 1998, Congress approved the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Pub. L. No. 105-304, 112 Stat. 2860 (17 U.S.C.A. §§ 101 et seq.), a broad-based piece of legislation that was designed to bring copyright law into the digital age.
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