Congress has the authority to protect original works of authorship or “writings” under the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8. The United States Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. §§ 101-810) is the federal law that details the rights and protections of copyright holders. Works of authorship must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression and fall within the subject matter of copyright to be protected. They must be able to be perceived or otherwise communicated directly or indirectly with a device. Ideas, concepts, procedures, principles, discoveries, and systems are not protected by copyright.

What counts as “writing” has expanded as the number of technological means of communication increases. Writing includes literary works, dramatic works, software, graphic arts, motion pictures, sound recordings, and choreographed dances. Important aspects of copyright law include:

      • Registration
      • Copyright ownership
      • Fair use
      • Infringement
      • Enforcement

A copyright holder has the following exclusive rights:  reproduction, distribution, performance, display, licensing, and preparation of derivative works. A copyright holder can enforce these rights through copyright infringement litigation. However, the copyright holder’s interests are balanced against the interests of society under the fair use doctrine. Courts balance multiple factors to determine whether a defendant’s actions or work should be considered fair use. However, generally, using a copyrighted work in order to criticize it, comment on it, report the news, teach, research, or produce other scholarly work is not considered infringement.

Under Section 106A, known as the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), authors of works of certain visual arts also have moral rights, specifically rights of attribution and integrity. This means visual artists of particular types of works have the right to claim authorship of their work and to prevent the use of their name on any work they did not create. Artists of works covered by the legislation also have the right to prevent the use of his or her name on a work of art if it is distorted, mutilated, or otherwise modified and could cause harm to their honor or reputation.

Unlike other authors, visual artists have a moral right to prevent intentional distortion, mutilation, or any other modification of their work and to prevent destruction of their work, if the work is of recognized stature. For example, if someone mutilates a mural that is recognized as a work of great value, the painter has the right to sue the person who mutilated the work. VARA covers only fine arts such as paintings, drawings, prints, still photographs for exhibition, and sculptures.

Registration for Copyright

Registering a copyright is voluntary. An author obtains copyright as soon as he or she creates an original work of authorship in a fixed medium. In other words, it is immediately his or property, and no other action, such as providing notice of copyright by using a copyright symbol, is required under the law. When a work is made for hire, the employer is the author and holds the rights and protections.

However, in order to enforce a right through litigation, copyright must be formally registered with the Copyright Office. In addition to registering the copyright, United States copyright holders should deposit copies with the Copyright Office for use by the Library of Congress, except with regard to certain materials.

How Long Does Copyright Last?

The length of time during which an author has copyright protection in his or her work depends on when the work was created. Work that was created and fixed on or after January 1, 1978 is protected for a term of the author’s life plus 70 years. When there are two or more authors of a joint work, the term continues for 70 years after the death of the last surviving author. Works for hire are protected for the lesser of 95 years from the first publication or 120 years from creation. However, if the Copyright Office records later reveal the author’s identity, the ordinary terms of protection apply.

The term of protection for works that were published before 1978 varies depending on the exact year. After a term of protection expires, the work falls into the public domain, and the copyright holder loses his or her rights.