Overview of U.S. Copyright Law

Keyboard with copyright printed

In the United States, creators of music, books, computer programs, motion pictures, lyrics, paintings, photographs, etc. enjoy certain exclusive rights to protect their works of authorship under 17 U.S. Code § 106. Under section 106 the Copyright Act of 1976 (Title 17, United States Code) the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:

(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;

(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;

(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;

(4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;

(5) 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, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and

(6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

There are some exceptions to these exclusive rights, such as reproduction by libraries and archives, educational and religious uses, fair use, and parody.

Due to the copyright law, copyright owners in the United States have more control over who uses their work and how the work is used. For example, an author of a book generally has the right to say whether the book can be turned into a motion picture and to set the terms, or a songwriter/music publisher can choose whether to allow a third party to use some of the lyrics or melody in a remix.

Therefore, that any person wishing to use a copyrighted work must obtain the permission of the copyright owner(s) and negotiate a fee for the intended use (except for rare exceptions such as the compulsory license available to performers who want to record so-called “cover” versions of copyrighted songs). Use without permission and negotiation with all relevant copyright holders may be considered copyright infringement and may subject the offender to monetary damages and an injunction against further distribution.