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Copyright law comes under the purview of intellectual property law. Copyright law protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software and architecture.  It does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, but it may protect the way these things are expressed.  Copyright law has always been a balancing act between the rights of creators and the rights of the public.

United States copyright law protects “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.  This protection is available to both published and unpublished works.  From the film industry’s point of view, copyright law protects literary, musical, dramatic, pantomimes and choreographic works, pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, audiovisual works, sound recordings, derivative works and compilations.

Five basic rights are protected by copyright: 1) The owner of copyright has the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords; 2) to prepare derivative works based upon the work; 3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending; 4) to publicly perform the work as well as  5) publicly display the work in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, and sound recordings by means of digital audio transmission and to publicly display the work, in the case of pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.

Copyright in the United States automatically attaches upon the creation of an original work of authorship; but registration with the Copyright Office puts a copyright holder in a better position if litigation arises over the copyright.  The work is registered with the U.S. Copyright office in Washington D.C.  The author of a work is the initial owner of the copyright in it, and may exploit the work himself or transfer some or all the rights conferred by the copyright to others.

Infringement of a copyright involves the defendant copying a protected work.  Both civil and criminal remedies are available for Copyright infringements.

Works created in or after 1978 are granted copyright protection for a term ending 70 years after the death of the author.  If the work was a work for hire (such as, those created by a corporation) then copyright persists for 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is shorter.

Copyrighted works may be transferred through assignment, exclusive licensing or non-exclusive licensing by the copyright holder.

A prominent limitation on the scope of copyright protection is the idea/expression dichotomy that, while copyright law protects the expression of an idea, it does not protect the idea itself.

U.S. copyright law contains provisions specifically directed at the entertainment industry. For example,  if the songwriter, who is the copyright holder, has transferred the song’s copyright or created the song as a work for hire; US copyright law decides who can first record a song for publication.  Once the song has been recorded and published, the copyright holder may no longer limit who may further record the song.  If a song’s copyright owner has previously granted permission to someone to record a song, or if the songwriter has recorded and commercially released a recording of the song, the copyright holder is required by copyright law to grant a license to anyone who wants to record that song.  This is a compulsory license.  A licensee who records a song under a compulsory license is required to follow strict statutory guidelines for notification of its use and reporting sales and royalties to the copyright holder. A nominal fee for a compulsory license is set by Congress and is adjusted for inflation every few years.

A separate copyright exists in each legally recorded version of a song. Therefore, whenever a musician records a song after receiving the appropriate license from the owner of the song’s copyright, that musician obtains a separate copyright in the recorded version of the song.

Copyright law also addresses the unique needs of dance, theater, and other performing arts.  A choreographer who creates choreography may claim a copyright for that choreography once it has been fixed in a tangible form, such as on a video recording.  The choreography then may be used only with the permission of the copyright holder.

Another key aspect of copyright law as applied to the entertainment industry is that of derivative works.  A copyright holder initially controls who may create a work based on the artist’s original work.

Inside Copyright