The 1976 Copyright Act gives the owner of a copyright the exclusive right to do and allow others:
- Reproduce the work in copies or phono-records;
- Prepare derivative works based upon the work;
- Distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
- Perform the work in public, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audio-visual works;
- Display the work in public, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audio-visual work; and
- In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work in public using digital audio transmission.
Authors of particular works of visual art have the rights of attribution and integrity. 17 United States Code § 106(A).
Copyright laws make it illegal for any person or entity to violate the rights provided by the copyright owner. These rights are limited in scope, and several specific exemptions from liability exist. 17 United States Code § 106-121. One such limitation is the doctrine of fair use. 17 United States Code § 107.
Copyright protection begins when a work is created in a fixed form. Thus, the copyright in a work of authorship immediately becomes the author’s property who created the work. Only the author or persons or entities deriving rights through the author may claim ownership to copyright.
Where an employee prepares a work within the scope of his or her employment, or if a work is ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, a part of a motion picture or other audio-visual work, a translation, a supplementary work, a compilation, an instructional text, a test, answer material for a test, or an atlas, and if the parties agree in a signed writing that the work was for hire, then the employer and not the employee is considered to be the author with the ability to claim copyright ownership. 17 United States Code § 101.
Authors in a joint work are co-owners of the copyright unless there is an agreement to the contrary. Copyright ownership of a separate contribution to a periodical or other collective work is distinct from the copyright that exists on the collaborative work.
Ownership of a book, DVD, or CD-ROM does not give the possessor copyright ownership. Such a possessor does not have the right to the protected work beyond the material object that contains or embodies the secure work and does not convey rights beyond the ability to transfer ownership of the content object.
Copyright protection is available for all unpublished works, regardless of the nationality or domicile of the author. Published works are eligible for copyright protection in the United States if:
- On the date of first publication, one or more of the authors is a national or domiciliary of the United States, or is a national, domiciliary, or sovereign authority of a treaty party, or is a stateless person wherever that person may be domiciled;
- The work is first published in the United States or a foreign nation that is a treaty party on the date of first publication. For purposes of this condition, a work that is published in the United States or a treaty party within thirty days after publication in a foreign nation that is not a treaty party shall be considered to be first published in the United States or such treaty party, as the case may be;
- The work is a sound recording that was first fixed in a treaty party;
- The work is a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work that is incorporated in a building or other structure, or an architectural work that is embodied in a building and the building or structure is located in the United States or a treaty party;
- The work is first published by the United Nations or any of its specialized agencies, or by the Organization of American States;
- The work is a foreign work that was in the public domain in the United States before 1996, and its copyright was restored under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act; or
- The work comes within the scope of a Presidential Proclamation.
Copyright protection is afforded to “original works of authorship” fixed in a tangible form of expression. The fixation need not be directly perceptible if the focus may be communicated with a machine’s aid. Copyrightable works fall within one of the following categories:
- Literary Works;
- Musical Works (including accompanying words);
- Dramatic Works (including accompanying music);
- Pantomimes and Choreographic Works;
- Pictorial, Graphic, and Sculptural Works;
- Motion Pictures and other Audio-Visual Works;
- Sound Recordings; and
- Architectural Works
These categories are broad. For example, the software may be protected as a “literary work” and maps may be protected as “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.”
Generally not protectable under copyright laws are:
- Works not fixed in a tangible medium;
- Titles, names, short phrases, slogans, familiar symbols and designs, typographic ornamentation, lettering, coloring, ingredients, or contents;
- Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, devices; and
- Works containing common property information.
For works fixed in a tangible form for the first time on or after January 1, 1978, protection endures seventy years after the end of the author’s (or the last surviving author’s) life. Protection for works for hire and anonymous or pseudonymous works endure for the shorter of ninety-five years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.