You write awesome stuff. You want to protect it. That’s where copyright law comes in to play.
What Is a Copyright?
A copyright is a collection of exclusive legal rights, that authors have over their work, for a limited period of time.
What Do Copyrights Do?
Copyrights give owners of copyrights, the exclusive right to make copies of copyrighted work, distribute copyrighted work, display or perform copyrighted work, and create derivative works from copyrighted work. Copyright laws also give the owners of copyrights the right to allow others to use their copyrights. So, if you have a dream of writing a whole bunch of Star Trek fan fiction, that might not be the best idea since your fanfiction is a derivative work of the original Star Trek and the owners of Star Trek are likely to come after you. But, if you have a dream of writing a whole bunch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction, you might be okay, because Joss Whedon is a big supporter of fan fiction.
What Do Copyrights Protect?
The Copyright Act of 1976, and subsequent amendments to the Copyright Act of 1976, extended copyright protection to “works of authorship”.
There are basically eight different types of “works of authorship.” They are:
- literary works (like books, articles, and even software programs and their accompanying documentation),
- musical works (like songs) including their lyrics,
- dramatic works (like plays), including any music (like musicals),
- dances, pantomimes, and choreographic works (Macarena at your own risk),
- pictures, graphics, and sculptures,
- movies, and other audio, visual stuff like clips,
- sounds (think of a combination of two sounds to create one, unique sound, and now you understand why sounds can be copyrighted), and
There is a catch. Copyrights protect “original” works of authorship (so they haven’t been copied and they add something new to the table) that are “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” (meaning the work is on paper, on the screen, on a canvas, and is more than just an idea). So, copyrights don’t protect copies. Copyrights also don’t protect the facts or ideas that you might have, only the expression of those facts or ideas. For example, copyright laws protect the recaps of Giants’ games published by the McCovey Chronicles. But copyright laws do not protect the facts, and data which is used to write those articles. As another example, copyright laws protect the Iron Man movies. But, they don’t prohibit people from writing movies about other billionaire, playboy, genius crimefighters.
How Long Do Copyrights Last?
As it currently stands (it has been changed over the years to protect Steamboat Willy), properly copyrighted works, published in the United States between 1923 and 1978 are copyright protected for 95 years from the date of publication. But, since 1978, most properly copyrighted works are protected for the life of the author, plus 70 years. If it was published in the United States before 1923, it’s public domain, and you can use it freely.
Are There Any Exceptions to Copyright Laws?
There are a few exceptions to copyright laws. We already mentioned authorization from the copyright owner (Joss Whedon example). We touched on works in the public domain.
Works in the public domain generally includes:
- works published, in the United States, before 1923, and
- works published by the United States government (think of things like judicial opinions, official statements, presidential speeches, and congressional reports.
Works in the public domain are no longer subject to copyright protection. They could be freely used by anyone, in anyway, and for any purpose. That’s part of the reason so many movies and tv shows go back to the “classics” from before 1923.
Another big exception to copyright laws is the doctrine of “fair use”. Fair use laws are kind of all over the place. They are very fact specific. But, the gist of it is that fair use laws provide for limited use of copyrighted materials, for education, and/or research, purposes, without the permission of the copyright owner.
There are a few other exceptions to copyright laws for educational institutions that you can read more about on other sites, if you really want.
What Are the Penalties for Copyright Infringement?
The penalties for copyright infringement can be quite severe. Copyright infringers can face criminal prosecution. Plus, courts can award up to $150,000 in statutory damages for each separate, willful infringement in civil cases. For example, say you want the whole world to read your Star Trek fan fiction. You type of the whole thing on your laptop. But, then it hits you…you should totally tweet out the entire thing! Sure, copying and pasting a 250-page book into snippets that are 140 characters, or less, is going to be a pain. But, think about the exposure! So, you start off with your first 138 characters and tweet it. That’s one separate, willful infringement of copyright laws. You copy and paste your second 132 characters and tweet it. That’s another separate, willful infringement of copyright laws. You’re potentially up to $300,000 now. But, you’re committed…you can see where this goes, and it’s not pretty.