A copyright is a federally granted property right that protects rights holders from certain unauthorized uses of their original works of authorship. The subject matter eligible for protection is set forth in the Copyright Act of 1976. Copyrightable works include literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works such as books, plays, music, lyrics, paintings, sculptures, video games, movies, sound recordings, and software.
To be eligible for protection under the Copyright Act, a work must be fixed in a “tangible medium of expression.” A literary work, for example, can be fixed in a book or on the back of an envelope. A musical work can be fixed in sheet music, on tape, or in a digital file. A work of visual art can be fixed on a canvas, and a sculptural work in stone.
Copyright protection does not extend to ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles, or discoveries. Copyright protects only the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. This principle, sometimes called the “idea-expression dichotomy,” ensures that protection will extend only to the original elements that the author has contributed to a work, not to the work’s underlying ideas, which remain freely available to the public.
Under the Copyright Act, a copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, publicly perform, and publicly display the work (or to authorize others to do so). In the case of sound recordings, the copyright owner has the right to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission. These exclusive rights are freely transferable, and may be licensed, sold, donated to charity, or bequeathed to heirs.
Limitations and exceptions
The exclusive rights of copyright are limited in a number of important ways. It has long been recognized that properly crafted limitations on the exclusive rights of copyright owners help to fulfill copyright’s basic goal by allowing the use of copyrighted works for certain publicly beneficial purposes.
International copyright agreements to which the United States is a party set forth a number of specific exceptions and limitations that member states may recognize. Any additional exceptions or limitations must satisfy the so-called “three-step” test, which provides that a permitted use must (1) be limited to “certain special cases,” (2) “not conflict with a normal exploitation of the work,” and (3) “not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the author.”
U.S. copyright law contains numerous exceptions and limitations to the exclusive rights of copyright owners, including in the following areas:
- Library and archival copying
- Educational and nonprofit broadcasting for purposes of distance learning
- Nonprofit live performances and displays
- Reproductions for visually impaired persons
- Making copies of computer programs for archival and/or maintenance purposes
In addition, section 107 of the Copyright Act codifies the doctrine of fair use, which permits certain other uses that are not covered by a specific statutory exception. While the doctrine is flexible and case-specific, section 107 sets forth an illustrative list of the types of uses that generally are considered appropriate for a finding of fair use. These include uses for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research. In determining whether a particular use is a fair use, section 107 specifies four factors that courts must consider: (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.