Copyright Basics

17 U.S.C. et. seq. is the statutory scheme the implements the constitutional protection of intellectual property in Article I section 8 clause 8: “[t]o promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Copyright creates exclusive ownership of a wide variety of intangible matters, but the statutory scheme also creates counter-balances to those rights for the general public, all in the interest of furthering the discovery and creation of useful things.

Section 102 of the Act describes the general subject matter of copyright, and the requirement that protected works be original and fixed in a tangible medium of expression. “Original” works of authorship need not be terribly original in the dictionary sense – but the Supreme Court has interpreted this language to be a modicum more than just rote copying of the same content of others. In any case, ideas, principles or concepts cannot enjoy the monopoly protection of the copyright act. Section 102(b) both carves out things from copyright protection that are dedicated to the public and things that should be protected by patent law.

Section 106 of the Act spells out the six general areas of exclusive rights in copyrighted works: (1) reproduction, (2) derivative works, (3) distribution, (4) “public” performance, (5) “public” display, and (6) the public performance of sound recordings in a digital audio transmission. These exclusive rights have garnered special meaning over time as the result of various court opinions, and changes to the statutory scheme itself. For example, sound recordings did not enjoy federal protection until the early 1970’s.

Sections 107-122 of the Act describe the various statutory limitations on the exclusive rights described in section 106. “Fair use” described in section 107 has been the subject of a number of Supreme Court opinions that have broadened and narrowed the protection this section has granted to copyright infringers. In addition, the copyright act rights have gone through some changes as a result of the technology boom that began in the 1980’s and continues today in such mediums as the world wide web, Napster and other music sharing services, and other technology changes in audio and video display and performance (like youtube, for example).

Chapter 2 of the Act discusses the copyright ownership and transfer. Chapter 3 provides for the complex durational rules for the exclusive rights (which can survive the author and pass to his or her heirs). Chapter 4 describes the notice, deposit and registration requirements for copyright. Chapter 5, supplemented by extensive case law, covers copyright infringement. For more details, see other posts or check out the Copyright Office’s website for more information.  Chapters 6 through 13 cover more detailed or sophisticated sections of the copyright act, and other related acts.

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Maryland technology attorney and college professor.

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