Copyright 101: Learn the Basics

Updated June 26, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Learn more about copyrightCopyright is possibly the most important and wide-reaching body of laws that people are generally uninformed about. You've probably heard of a couple high profile cases here and there, but issues of copyright affect every book, movie, song, and website you've ever been on. Cases can be complicated and settlements can range in the millions; it's no wonder that lawyers for companies like Disney are some of the most successful in the world. Students, creative artists, and writers need to understand copyright to operate in today's media-laden world.

What Copyright Isn’t
There are two legal subjects that are like copyright, but are not the same thing—patents and trademarks. A patent gives inventors the exclusive rights to manufacture their invention for a period of time; in the United States, patents last for 20 years. A trademark is a symbol associated with a particular manufacturer or service used to identify them (think the Nike Swoosh, or Bibendum for Michelin).

What Copyright Is
Copyright laws dictate who owns the right to specific cultural works, which in turn decides when and how people can interact with those works: sales, distribution, reproduction, display, derivatives, etc. This generally means that the people who make a movie, a song, or a book, get to determine what happens with it. If someone were to try and sell your song as an original work, or to use it in a film without your permission, copyright law allows you to stop it. Copyrights are usually held until 70 years after a creator’s death.

Who Holds the Copyright
It used to be the case that creators would have to specifically apply for the copyright on the elements of their work. In the United States, since 1976, the creators of any tangible work automatically gain copyright—this can make it difficult to track down copyright holders to get permissions, since they're not registered in any central location, but this is ultimately meant to protect creators.

Where Things Get Tricky: Part 1
Copyrights get much more complicated as more people get involved. Multiple people may hold the copyright for a work, or a company collectively. Copyright can also be traded and sold. This is further complicated when different companies handle distribution in different countries as is usually the case. So if a pair of filmmakers partner with a studio to coordinate an international release through affiliates, then all of those people have some control over how the film is handled.

Exceptions to Copyright
There are cases where the use of copyrighted material without creator approval is acceptable. These fall under “fair use.” Examples of fair use are criticism and reporting. A film critic doing a review of a movie could use a clip of that movie, or a reporter could quote a book in the act of reporting on it.

Where Thing Get Tricky: Part 2
The line between fair use and copyright infringement isn’t always clear. Sometimes people can do something they think falls under fair use, and suffer (potentially unfair) legal actions. Or, a creator might have difficulty proving when their creative rights are being violated. And, across both sides, the sheer cost of copyright lawyers’ services often means that less wealthy people are unable to seek proper redress in copyright cases.

To find out more about US Copyright law, check out this website which contains all of the most relevant legal codes.

By Logan Chamberlain
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