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For Conservapedia's copyright policy, see Conservapedia:Copyright.

Copyright is federal legal protection for the rights of authors in their works for a limited time period. Copyright law (title 17, U.S. Code) is enacted under the authority of the Copyright Clause in the Constitution, "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for a limited Time to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Copyright protects authors of "original works of authorship", including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, software, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works. It does not protect the ideas contained in the work, just the original creative expression of those ideas.

Under Section 105 of the copyright law, "Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government, but the United States Government is not precluded from receiving and holding copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise."

The duration of U.S. copyright has changed several times. It was 14 years as originally enacted, then doubled to 28 years, and an option for creators to renew that for another 28 years was added. In 1976, under pressure from foreign countries (which had copyright terms extending 50-70 years after the death of the creator, even for works created when they were young) and from large entertainment corporations such as Disney (which had valuable properties whose copyrights were in danger of expiring) Congress extended the duration of copyright to 75 years. Two decades later, they added another 20 years. Neither of these extensions applied to copyrights that had already expired, so anything published in the United States before 1923 is in the public domain in that country.[1] Also, photographs of paintings in the public domain would ordinarily not qualify for copyright protection either.[2]

Works that were published before March 1, 1989 required a copyright notice, such as the word "Copyright" or "©", along with name of the copyright owner.[3] (The approximation "(c)" was widely used, but invalid.) There are some narrow exceptions to this rule, and the lack of a notice on an unauthorized copy does not entitle one to copy the work. Works published after that are protected by copyright laws even if they lack the notice. Registration of copyrights is optional, but you need to have the work registered to sue for damages. These changes were mandated by the Berne Convention, an international copyright regime.

All court decisions and statutes, whether federal, state or local, are in the public domain and may be fully copied. Even pagination inserted into opinions by private publishers is fair use and may be copied.[4]

Copyright Act

Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • To display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
  • In the case of sound recordings*, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

In addition, certain authors of works of visual art have the rights of attribution and integrity as described in section 106A of the 1976 Copyright Act. For further information, request Circular 40, Copyright Registration for Works of the Visual Arts.

It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of copyright. These rights, however, are not unlimited in scope. Sections 107 through 121 of the 1976 Copyright Act establish limitations on these rights. In some cases, these limitations are specified exemptions from copyright liability. One major limitation is the doctrine of “fair use,” which is given a statutory basis in section 107 of the 1976 Copyright Act. In other instances, the limitation takes the form of a “compulsory license” under which certain limited uses of copyrighted works are permitted upon payment of specified royalties and compliance with statutory conditions. For further information about the limitations of any of these rights, consult the copyright law or write to the Copyright Office.

  • Note: Sound recordings are defined in the law as “works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds, but not including the sounds accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work.” Common examples include recordings of music, drama, or lectures. A sound recording is not the same as a phonorecord. A phonorecord is the physical object in which works of authorship are embodied. The word “phonorecord” includes cassette tapes, CDs, LPs, 45 r.p.m. disks, as well as other formats.

Copyright as Property

Copyrights, patents, and trademarks are often referred to as "intellectual property". It is legally a form of property in many countries; however, according to the Constitution's description and historical views described above, it is technically a protectionist measure in the United States. For this reason, it falls under the federal court system (unlike other property disputes which are usually handled by the states).

To get around this limitation, extensions such as those listed above have been passed. In 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (aka the "Bono Act") increased copyright terms as much as 120 years after the artist's death. It is often called the "Mickey Mouse Act" due to the law setting the public domain cutoff at 1923, a year close to the emergence of Disney's popular cartoon characters. In Eldred v. Ashcroft (2003), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Bono Act, claiming that the Constitution's "limited" could mean a term of any length.


  2. Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.
  4. Matthew Bender & Co. v. West Publishing Co., 158 F.3d 693 (2d Cir. 1998).