Copyright law can be a confusing and even intimidating set of regulations that may seem to run counter to the Internet era notion that if it's on the Web, it's up for grabs. But copying or distributing someone else's copyrighted work without permission is stealing, and robs the author or copyright holder of just compensation or credit for his efforts. Yet copyright is not meant to be a stranglehold on the sharing of information and creative works.
Works Protected by Copyright
Copyright protects original literary, dramatic, musical and other artistic works, whether written, visual or audio. The U.S. Copyright Office notes the law attaches broad definitions to these terms, so that computer software, for instance, is considered a literary work. The work of music composers and songwriters can be copyrighted separately from the recorded performance of the work. What is not protected under copyright are ideas, systems, facts and methods of operation, even though a description or expression of them can be protected. An ingredient list in a recipe is not subject to copyright, for instance, but a description of how to use the ingredients may be.
When a Work is Protected
Any creative work is protected by copyright as soon as the author creates it and fixes it in a "tangible form," that is writes it down or records it. Publication is not required. For works created after Jan. 1, 1978, copyright protection continues for the life of the author and for an additional 70 years. Protection for anonymous or pseudonymous works continues for 95 years from its first publication, or 120 years from its creation, whichever expires first. Different regulations cover works published prior to 1978, and the length of copyright depends on a variety of factors, discussed in the Copyright Office's Circular 1, Copyright Basics.
Downloads and Software
Downloading any work without the permission or authority of the copyright owner infringes on the owner's exclusive rights to control distribution and reproduction. Downloading such works can bring statutory damages of up to $30,000 for each work copied, and $150,000 for "willful infringement," such as when someone illegally distributes copyright work for profit. Copyright also prohibits anyone from selling backup copies of software separately from the original copy of the software. A person can sell or transfer the original and backup copies of software if he removes any copies from his computer.
Permission and Fair Use
The Fair Use doctrine allows use of limited portions of works for use in commentary, criticism, news reporting or academic writings. There are no rules defining a specific number of words, musical notes or a percentage of work that can be used under fair use. Infringement depends on the circumstances of the use and the impact on the original work, such as a reduction of its market value. To use an extensive excerpt of a work, or to reprint the work, the simplest and safest option is to ask permission from the copyright owner. The copyright holder may have no objection to the intended use, and may even see a marketing benefit.