US Copyright Law

An Overview

US copyright law has been modified several times, each time extending the life of copyright protection. This document provides an overview of US copyright law, from the timeline of protection to what is protected.

Copyright is a form of intellectual property; the protection is "grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression." Both published and unpublished works can be protected.

Copyright law advances science and the arts by awarding creators a limited but exclusive set rights; creators can control the reproduction, distribution, display, performance, and adaptation of their work. Thus, they have an economic incentive to create.

When the limited period of protection expires, the work enters the public domain. In the US, Congress continues to extend the limited time period of protection.

Founding Fathers: Limited Term
Originally, US copyright was for 14 years, which could be extended to 28 years if the author was alive. They wanted to prevent a system of "hereditary privilege" like that in Renaisannace Europe where printing guilds held "rights to dead authors and tightly controlled what could or could not be printed and who could or could not use literary material."

According to the National Review (2002):

  • We now have an exact replica of the medieval Stationers' Company, which controlled the English copyrights, only its names today are Disney, Bertelsmann, and AOL Time Warner. The big media companies, holding the copyrights of dead authors, have said, in effect, that Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton were wrong and that we should go back to the aristocratic system of hereditary ownership, granting copyrights in perpetuity.

    Works Created and Published Before 1 January 1978
    Under the law in effect before 1978, copyright endured for 28 years from the date copyright was secured. Copyright was secured by either publishing with a copyright notice or by registering an unpublished form of the work.

    In year 28, the copyright holder could apply for a renewal or extension.

    The Copyright Act of 1976 extended the renewal term from 28 to 47 years for copyrights that existed on January 1, 1978, or for pre-1978 copyrights restored under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), making these works eligible for a total term of protection of 75 years.

    In 1992, Congress amended the 1976 Copyright Act, providing for automatic renewals for works secured between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977 - Public Law 102-307 (txt).

    In 1998, Congress extended the life of copyright another 20 years - Public Law 105-298 (txt). Renewal was 67 years, granting a total term of protection of 95 years. According to the National Review (2002), this law (Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act) also mandated that

    • ... there will be no copyright expirations for 20 years, meaning that everything published between 1923 and 1943 will not be released into the public domain. Presumably they'll take up the matter again in 2018 and decide whether any of these books, movies, or songs are ever set free. There are 400,000 of them.

    The author notes that many of the works from this period, including, for example, the movie The Wizard of Oz, is based on work that was in the public domain.

    The US Supreme Court affirmed the extensions provided for in the Bono Act.

    Works Created or Published On or After 1 January 1978
    Regardless of creation date, works published after this date have the same protections as those created after this date. A work that is created on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation for the period of the author's life plus an additional 70 years after the author's death. If there are two or more authors, the period lasts 70 years after the last surviving author's death.

    Works for hire or those published anonymously are protected for 95 years from date of publication or 120 years from date of creation, whichever is the shorter period.

    Next: What is Protected?

    What is protected?
    The classes of protected works follow:


    • literary works;
    • musical works, including any accompanying words
    • dramatic works, including any accompanying music
    • pantomimes and choreographic works
    • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
    • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
    • sound recordings
    • architectural works


    International Rights
    There is no "international copyright" to automatically work throughout the entire world.

    Most countries do protect foreign works under certain conditions.

    Use of Copyrighted Material
    If someone uses your copyrighted work without authorization, you may be able to bring an infringement action against the offending party. However, copyright law contains a provision called "fair use" which allows for quotes or samples to be used without express permission.

    There are four factors to consider when determining fair use:


    1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
    2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
    3. amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
    4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.


    Transfer of Rights
    A copyright owner may transfer exclusive rights if done so in writing; transfer of nonexclusive rights does not require a written document.

    Because copyright is a personal property right, it may also be bequeathed by will or pass as personal property by state law of succession; as such, it is subject to personal property taxes.

    See also US Copyright Office, Circular 1, US Copyright Office, Fair Use, US Copyright Office, Frequently Asked Questions ; National Review

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    Your Citation
    Gill, Kathy. "US Copyright Law." ThoughtCo, Mar. 24, 2016, Gill, Kathy. (2016, March 24). US Copyright Law. Retrieved from Gill, Kathy. "US Copyright Law." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 16, 2017).