Copyright gives creators and owners of a creative piece such as writing, a photograph, a sound or video recording or another artwork legal protection to keep others from using that work without their permission. Copyright law protects all creative works, and unauthorized reproduction of copyrighted material may lead to civil and criminal penalties.
General Copyright Law
Producers of a creative work automatically receive limited copyright protection for their work, although the copyright for works made for hire or in the normal course of employment may revert to the employer. Owners of a work may register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office to receive the highest level of legal protection for their work -- infringements of registered works may result in statutory damages in addition to actual damages -- although registration isn’t necessary to receive copyright protection.
When a consumer purchases a book, a poster or an audio or video recording, he purchases a one-time license to possess a copy of the work encapsulated on the medium he purchased. This license doesn’t allow for unauthorized duplication. For example, purchasing a novel doesn’t grant you the right to make photocopies of each page and give them to your friends. It grants you the right to enjoy the work in your own home.
Fair Use Doctrine
The fair use clause in U.S. copyright law allows for only very limited use of another’s work without the copyright holder’s permission and usually only applies to using brief sections as part of public coverage and criticism of the work or brief quotes in a scholarly setting. Although no definitions of the limits of the fair use doctrine limit the precise number of words or length of a recording that may be quoted, fair usage cannot be used to copy large portions of the work or impede a copyright owner’s ability to profit from her work.
U.S. copyright law grants individuals a small amount of leeway in creating copies of protected works if copies are used only personally. Archival and other backup copies of copyrighted works are protected by fair use, and, in most cases, transferring a work to another medium -- such as ripping a CD and placing the files on an MP3 player or using songs on a mix CD for personal use -- are considered personal use. Personal use copies may only be used by the party who purchased the original copy of the work and may not be distributed to others.
Nonprofiting and Educational Infringement
A party doesn’t need to financially profit from infringement to be held liable for damages, so nonprofiting infringement isn’t a defense against charges of violating copyright law. Because of this, placing copyrighted works online for free distribution, making unauthorized copies of videos to be used in classrooms or copying software to be used on a nonprofit organization’s computer is still a copyright violation even though the infringer didn’t materially profit.
- U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright Basics
- U.S. Copyright Office: USC 17, Chapter 5 - Copyright Infringement and Remedies
- U.S. Copyright Office: Can I Use Someone Else's Work? Can Someone Use Mine?
- Rosenblatt, Betsy, Harvard Law School: "Copyright Basics"
- Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute: Copyright - An Overview
Wilhelm Schnotz has worked as a freelance writer since 1998, covering arts and entertainment, culture and financial stories for a variety of consumer publications. His work has appeared in dozens of print titles, including "TV Guide" and "The Dallas Observer." Schnotz holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Colorado State University.