Overview of Current U.S. Copyright Law

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. These exclusive rights flow from Section 106 the Copyright Act of 1976 (Title 17, United States Code) and are as follows:

1. To reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords (audio-only devices, such as records, compact discs or audio cassettes);

2. To prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work, such as converting a book into a movie;

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 choreographed works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly. The performance may be live, by broadcast or over loudspeaker in a public place (store, museum, etc.). “Public” is defined as persons outside of your family or immediate circle of acquaintances;

5. In the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographed works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture and other audiovisual works, to exhibit the copyrighted work publicly; and

6. In the case of sound recordings, to perform the 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.

As a result, copyright owners in the United States have a lot of control over who uses their work and how the work is used, at least from a legal perspective. 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 for such adaptation. Similarly, a songwriter/music publisher can choose whether to permit his/her song to be translated into another language or to allow a third party to use some of the lyrics or melody in a remix.

On the flip side, it means 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 is copyright infringement and can subject the offender to both monetary damages and an injunction against further distribution.

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