Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects “original works of authorship,” including literary, musical, and dramatic works, as well as photographs and graphics, audio and visual recordings, and other qualifying creative works.  Copyright law provides authors of original works exclusive rights to use their works, including the right to reproduce, distribute, perform and display the protected work.

It is not difficult to satisfy the originality requirement for purposes of copyright protection.  Works are original when they are independently created by a human author and have “at least a modicum of creativity.”  Independent creation simply means that you create it yourself, without copying from other works.

What copyright protects is expression, and never ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries.  The complete list of exemptions to copyright protection can be found in chapter 1 of title 17 of the United States Code.

Copyright protection for original works of authorship exists at the moment the work is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”  A copyright holder can take steps to enhance the protections of copyright, the most important of which is registering the work with the U.S. Copyright Office.

The length of copyright protection depends on when a work was created.  Under the current law, works created on or after January 1, 1978, have a copyright term of life of the author plus seventy years after the author’s death.  For works made for hire and anonymous or pseudonymous works, copyright protection is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.  Works created before 1978 have a different timeframe.  Copyright has been a part of U.S. law since the nation’s founding.

Although registering a work is not mandatory, for U.S. works, registration is necessary to enforce the exclusive rights of copyright through litigation.  Timely registration with the U.S. Copyright Office allows copyright owners to seek certain types of monetary damages and attorney fees if there is a lawsuit, and also provides a presumption that information on the registration certificate is correct.

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Copyright Law of the United States

The United States copyright law is contained in chapters 1 through 8 and 10 through 12 of title 17 of the United States Code. Chapters 9 and 13 of title 17 contain two types of design protection that are independent of copyright protection.  The Copyright Act of 1976 provides the basic framework for the current copyright law.


Preface: Amendments to Title 17 since 1976


Title 17 of the United States Code

Chapter 1: Subject Matter and Scope of Copyright

Chapter 2: Copyright Ownership and Transfer

Chapter 3: Duration of Copyright

Chapter 4: Copyright Notice, Deposit, and Registration

Chapter 5: Copyright Infringement and Remedies

Chapter 6: Importation and Exportation

Chapter 7: Copyright Office

Chapter 8: Proceedings by Copyright Royalty Judges

Chapter 9: Protection of Semiconductor Chip Products

Chapter 10: Digital Audio Recording Devices and Media

Chapter 11: Sound Recordings and Music Videos

Chapter 12: Copyright Protection and Management Systems

Chapter 13: Protection of Original Designs


Transitional and Related Statutory Provisions

Appendix A: The Copyright Act of 1976

Appendix B: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998

Appendix C: The Copyright Royalty and Distribution Reform Act of 2004

Appendix D: The Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act of 2004

Appendix E: The Intellectual Property Protection and Courts Amendments Act of 2004

Appendix F: The Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act of 2008

Appendix G: The Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2010

Appendix H: The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act

Appendix I: The STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014

Appendix J: Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act

Appendix K: Orrin G. Hatch–Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act

Appendix L: Satellite Television Community Protection and Promotion Act of 2019, Title X of the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020

Related United States Code Provisions

Appendix M: Title 18 — Crimes and Criminal Procedure, U.S. Code

Appendix N: Title 28 — Judiciary and Judicial Procedure, U.S. Code

Appendix O: Title 44 — Public Printing and Documents, U.S. Code

Related International Provisions

Appendix P: The Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988

Appendix Q: The Uruguay Round Agreements Act of 1994

Appendix R: GATT/Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) Agreement, Part II

Appendix S: Definition of “Berne Convention Work”

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