Copyright is governed by federal law and is derived from the U.S. Constitution, which granted power to the United States Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” (this clause also is the basis for patent protection in the U.S.). As a result, Congress has enacted a succession of copyright acts and amendments, beginning in 1790 and continuing through today. In general, the current law grants copyright protection for a period of the life of the author plus 70 years.
Copyright applies to original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. An original work of authorship is one that is independently created and includes a minimum level of creativity. Examples of the types of works to which copyrights apply include literary works, drawings, paintings, sculptures, movies, music, video games, and other works of art. Copyright protection also applies to computer software.
Copyright protection does not protect ideas, but protects the expression of an idea. A work does not need to be registered with the Copyright Office to be afforded copyright protection. However, it must be registered with the Copyright Office to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement. In addition, significant benefits arise from the timely registration of copyrights.
The author of a work is vested with a number of exclusive rights when copyright protection arises. These exclusive rights include, among other things, the right to reproduce (copy), adapt, display, and publicly perform the work. The author may transfer all or some of his or her exclusive rights in the work to another party. For example, the author of a novel may transfer the right to adapt a novel into a screenplay to a movie studio, while still retaining the copyright in the novel itself. Another significant component of copyright law is the area of fair use, which allows use of a copyrighted work without permission in certain limited circumstances (e.g., for the purpose of commenting on or criticizing the work).
Copyright lawyers assist clients with identifying materials that are protectable by copyright, registering copyrightable works with the United States Copyright Office, and counseling clients in the various ways in which copyrights may be acquired, protected, and exploited. Litigation also is a large part of a copyright lawyer’s practice.
Copyright law also addresses issues involving digital rights management, which are measures designed to manage digital copies of works. With the advent of digital copies, some copyright owners seek to restrict the ability to make copies of a particular work. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which is part of U.S. copyright law, prohibits circumventing measures that are designed to prevent copying of copyrighted works. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act also, among other things, provides a framework for online service providers for avoiding copyright infringement based on the acts of the online service provider’s users.
Joel D. Leviton and Kristen McCallion, Co-Chairs of Copyright Practice
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