Copyright laws were established as the American publishing industry changed. Read through this article to see how copyright influenced publishing and writing.
Frequently asked questions to help you protect your creative work and avoid infringing the rights of others.
Until 1989, a published work had to contain a valid copyright notice to receive protection under the copyright laws. But this requirement is no longer in force – works first published after March 1, 1989 need not include a copyright notice to gain protection under the law.
But even though a copyright notice is not required, it's still important to include one. When a work contains a valid notice, an infringer cannot claim in court that he or she didn't know it was copyrighted. This makes it much easier to win a copyright infringement case and perhaps collect enough damages to make the cost of the case worthwhile. And the very existence of a notice might discourage infringement.
Finally, including a copyright notice may make it easier for a potential infringer to track down a copyright owner and legitimately obtain permission to use the work.
A copyright notice should contain:
For example, the correct copyright for the ninth edition of The Copyright Handbook, by Stephen Fishman (Nolo) is Copyright © 2006 by Stephen Fishman.
In the United States, a copyright owner can significantly enhance the protection afforded by a basic copyright. This is done by registering the copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. See Copyright Registration and Enforcement.
When a work becomes available for use without permission from a copyright owner, it is said to be "in the public domain". Most works enter the public domain because their copyrights have expired.
To determine whether a work is in the public domain and available for use without the author's permission, you first have to find out when it was published. Then apply the following rules to see if the copyright has expired:
The Copyright Office will check renewal information for you, at a charge of $150 per hour. (Call the Reference & Bibliography Section at 202-707-6850.) You can also hire a private copyright search firm to see if a renewal was filed. Finally, you may be able to conduct a renewal search yourself. The renewal records for works published from 1950 to the present are available online at www.copyright.gov. Renewal searches for earlier works can be conducted at the Copyright Office in Washington D.C. or by visiting one of the many government depository libraries throughout the country. Call the Copyright Office for more information.
With one important exception, you should assume that every work is protected by copyright unless you can establish that it is not. As mentioned above, you can't rely on the presence or absence of a copyright notice (©) to make this determination, because a notice is not required for works published after March 1, 1989. And even for works published before 1989, the absence of a copyright notice may not affect the validity of the copyright – for example, if the author made diligent attempts to correct the situation.
The exception is for materials put to work under the "fair use rule". This rule recognizes that society can often benefit from the unauthorized use of copyrighted materials when the purpose of the use serves the ends of scholarship, education or an informed public. For example, scholars must be free to quote from their research resources in order to comment on the material. To strike a balance between the needs of a public to be well-informed and the rights of copyright owners to profit from their creativity, Congress passed a law authorizing the use of copyrighted materials in certain circumstances deemed to be "fair" – even if the copyright owner doesn't give permission.
Often, it's difficult to know whether a court will consider a proposed use to be fair. The fair use statute requires the courts to consider the following questions in deciding this issue:
As a general rule, if you are using a small portion of somebody else's work in a non-competitive way and the purpose for your use is to benefit the public, you're on pretty safe ground. On the other hand, if you take large portions of someone else's expression for your own purely commercial reasons, the rule usually won't apply.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 License.