Copyright is a type of legal protection provided to authors of original works by the federal government. Essentially, copyright law exists to reward creativity and give individuals incentive to innovate, while creating a foundation of resources for future innovators. The owners of copyrighted works have certain exclusive rights to their works, and can also authorize others to do certain things. U.S. Code title 17 covers both published and unpublished literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and select other intellectual works. Under section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act, these rights include:  

  • the right to reproduce the work in copies (where the term “copy right” comes from) 
  • the right to create derivative works based on the original 
  • the right to publicly distribute copies of the work through transfer of ownership (ex: sales, leases, rentals or lending of the copies)
  • the right to display or perform the work publicly, including via digital transmission 
  • the right of attribution, which means creators of works of visual art can claim authorship of their work, remove their name from work they didn’t create, remove their name from work that was altered in a way they don’t approve of, prevent others (to a certain extent) from altering their work in a way that’s detrimental to them, and prevent the destruction of a recognized work. 

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For the most part, it’s illegal for anyone to violate any of the copyright holder’s rights. If you find that someone is using your work without permission, you may be able to sue. Simply owning the work or a copy of the work does not give the owner copyright; copyright belongs to the author of the work alone. In other words, if you buy an artist’s original painting, you own that physical copy, but not the copyright, so you can’t legally make and sell copies of the work. Also, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it’s illegal to produce and distribute any technological devices or services intended to circumvent measures controlling access to copyrighted works. It is also illegal to circumvent these controls regardless of whether any infringement occurs.

Furthermore, copyright does not give you exclusive rights indefinitely. You own the rights to your work for your lifetime, as well as 70 years after your death, after which point your work enters the public domain and can be used freely by anyone for any purpose. Works made for hire, or made under a pseudonym or anonymously (without revealing the author’s identity in Copyright Office records), are protected under copyright for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter. Rules vary for works created before January 1, 1978, so be sure to check which terms apply to you. There are exemptions to the 1976 Copyright Act as well as to the DMCA. See Copyright Law Exemptions for more information.

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