Copyright law in the United States can be a frustrating issue for all interested parties, including Internet-savvy consumers, companies that survive on the sale of copyrighted goods and the artists themselves. However, copyright law is in place to protect each of these parties, though the implications and effectiveness of such laws may be questionable to some, especially with modern technologies and changes in the ways that consumers experience copyrighted material.
The U.S. Constitution
Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. constitution states that, “The Congress shall have power to…promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” This seems to suggest that the purpose of copyright law is, above anything else, to ensure that the sciences and arts continue to progress and develop. Often, this has been ensured in the U.S. by allowing artists to own and thus make a profit from the sale of their works, so that they are motivated to continue creating.
U.S. Copyright Law
U.S. copyright law has evolved into a somewhat complex (and, in the eyes of some consumers, arbitrary) system. Copyright law specifically outlaws the unauthorized use, reproduction and distribution of original works. In order for an artistic piece to be protected, it must be the “original creative expression” of the artist, and it must exist in a fixed medium (as in a book or recorded piece of music). Generally, an individual may retain ownership of her work for life plus 70 years (after her life, it passes on with her estate). Corporations, which also may own copyrights, are protected for between 95 and 120 years. Copyrights can, in some circumstances, be renewed after these time-frames have expired. Copyrighted works can also sometimes be utilized for educational and certain other purposes known as “fair use.”
There are exceptions that allow individuals to directly duplicate and use copyrighted works if they fall under the protection of "fair use." Fair Use takes into account the purpose of the piece, the nature of how the copyrighted work was used, the amount used and the effects that such use may have had on the copyrighted work's commercial success. The line between Fair Use and infringement is often very thin, but this clause to U.S. copyright law has successfully defended a diverse number of individuals, ranging from teachers using copyrighted materials for non-profit educational purposes to artists who have used satire to criticize copyrighted works.
Because many copyrighted materials are now available in easily distributed digital files (such as digital music that can easily be shared via the Internet), new challenges are constantly being presented to government agencies responsible for protecting U.S. copyrights. It is illegal to download or upload works that are not authorized for such reproduction by the copyright owners, and punishments can be as steep as $45,000 per work infringed upon. However, a growing percentage of Internet users have engaged in this illegal file sharing, often without personal profit. Thus, prosecution can be been difficult. Some companies are beginning to look for new ways to make profits on digital copyrighted material, especially if Internet copyright infringement cannot be stopped.