Copyright Basics

Copyright law was established in the US Constitution: “The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors … the exclusive Right to their respective Writings” (Article I, Sec. 8).

What Is Copyright?

  • Reproduction Rights: The right to make copies of protected work (not exclusive).
  • Distribution Rights: The exclusive right to sell or otherwise distribute.
  • Derivative Rights: The right to make adaptations or new work based on copyrighted work.
  • Performance & Display Rights: The right to perform as in a play or display work publicly.

Prerequisites for Something to Be Copyrightable:

  1. It must be an original expression, meaning words, sounds, or images used to express ideas or convey information. “Originality” has a very low threshold—only “a modicum of creativity” is necessary. This includes minimal efforts like the Yellow Pages or the selection and arrangement for a list of used cars.
  2. The original author—not synonymous with “creator”—controls copyright. Authorship includes individual and joint authors. Collective works are those where the works of several authors can be merged, such as with newspapers, anthologies, or the proceedings of conferences, and can be copyrighted with individual contributions copyrighted by those authors.
  3. It must be “fixed” in a “tangible” form “now known or later developed from which [the work] can be perceived, reproduced or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device” (Copyright Act of 1976, US Code, Title 17, Chapter 1, Sec. 101). This includes paper, traditional media, and electronic memory. It must be stored in a way that is not transitory. An e-mail can be copyrightable if it is stored in the sender’s computer, but an extemporaneous lecture that is not recorded is not. This is one of the reasons radio stations keep written transcripts. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was largely extemporaneous, so if it had not been recorded and preserved it would not have been copyrightable.