Here are some basic things you should know about copyright law before you ask a question.

Read further and you may very well find the answer to the question that brought you here!

Some meta-background is here.

  • I'm tempted to just reply Nimmer on Copyright but I suspect some people might be a little annoyed with such an answer.
    – Kevin
    Nov 30 '18 at 23:22
  • 1
    @Kevin: Yeah, I think we're trying to fill in the space between "LMGTFY" and "your answer is probably somewhere in this seminal multi-volume treatise on the subject" :D
    – feetwet Mod
    Nov 30 '18 at 23:31

Copyright law protects a creator’s right to control certain intangible works that they have created, specifically protecting original expression but not underlying facts or ideas. Modern copyright law is based on the Berne Convention, and in the US, the statutory basis for copyright law is Title 17 of the US Code. 17 USC 102(a) states the basic rule regarding what is protected:

original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device

The requirement that the work have a fixed form means that an extemporaneous lecture is not protected, but a lecture delivered from a prepared script is. 17 USC 1101 additionally prohibits unauthorized recording and “fixation” specifically for musical performances.

17 USC 102(b) further explains that ideas and facts are not protected:

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

Protected works must exhibit a modicum of creativity, the controlling case in the US being Feist v. Rural Telephone Service, 499 U.S. 340. Names of products, characters in books, short phrases and lists of ingredients are not protected by copyright, though product names are subject to trademark protection.

The rights which are protected are spelled out in 17 USC 106, which states that subject to certain exceptions, the

copyright owner has the exclusive rights to make and distribute copies, make a derivative work based on the protected work, to publicly perform, transmit or display the work.

An author thus has the exclusive right to distribute a text that he creates, as well as the exclusive right to translate or otherwise adapt that work. If the rights holder authorizes a derivative work, the creator of the derivative work then holds the copyright to just those adaptations.

One of the major exceptions to copyright protection is “fair use”, according to 17 USC 107, which is a defense (summarized here) that can be used if sued for infringement. This is the mechanism whereby newspapers are allowed to quote short pieces from political speeches without first obtaining the author’s permission. The law of “fair use” is very complex (often incorrectly thought to allow any copying as long as it is not for profit). Other specified exceptions to copyright protection exist, including permission for libraries and archives to make copies (17 USC 108), to passively retransmit cable or satellite signals (17 USC 119), as well as the right of the owner of a particular copy of protected material to dispose of (including sell) their copy, without the copyright owner’s permission (17 USC 109). Works of the US government, defined as “a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties” are also not subject to copyright, under 17 USC 105.

Computer programs introduce a complexity to copyright protection, since in order to be used, a program must be copied from a distribution source and then to computer memory. In addition, to protect a computer system, backups are required, which means making a copy. 17 USC 117 partially addresses this issue, stating that under certain conditions

it is not an infringement for the owner of a copy of a computer program to make or authorize the making of another copy or adaptation of that computer program

specifically that the copy is necessary for the functioning of the program (it is loaded into memory): or to archive the program. This permission only applies to software that is owned by the individual: frequently, software is not sold per se, and instead a license to use the software is sold. The effect of this is that legal usage of software is usually governed by specific terms of use, whose enforceability resides in the fact that the user has not purchased the software itself, and has no permission at all to copy the software.

The protected right is initially held by the creator of a work (17 USC 201) but in the case of a work for hire governed by an explicit agreement, the right is held by the person for whom the work is made. That right may be transferred to another person by explicit signed agreement (17 USC 204). A rights-holder may also give permission to another for a particular usage via a license. The duration of copyright is specified in Chapter 3, for works created after December 31, 1977 as enduring for 70 years after the death of the author. Earlier works are subject to more complex rules pertaining to renewal, restoration and registration: any work published in the US which was created before 1923 is now in the public domain (works published elsewhere have a longer duration of copyright).

It is no longer required that the copyright symbol © be included in a protected work, nor that there be any notice that a work is in copyright. Copyright exists even when a work has not been registered, but works which are not registered enjoy less protection. Chapter 5 of Title 17 specifies legal remedies for infringement, which include injunctions, impounding or infringing material and per 17 USC 504 monetary awards for actual damages as well as statutory damages between $200 and $150,000 plus attorney fees. However, statutory damages and attorney fees are available only to registered works.

  • May be worth noting that only works PUBLISHED in the USA before 1923 are public domain. Copyright expiration for unpublished works (and for sound recordings) are governed by different rules. Also, US copyright may subsist without notice or registration but cannot be legally enforced without first applying for registration. 17 USC § 411.
    – Upnorth
    Aug 8 '17 at 23:58

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