Copyright laws protect original works or content created by writers, artists, composers and directors, among others. Protected works can include television programs, radio broadcasts, the page content of a website, software, as well as novels, films, music and photographs. The United States federal government, the United Nations and the governments of many other countries have enacted legislation or agreed to treaties designed to protect copyrighted works. Since the advent of television and the Internet, governing bodies have written new laws designed to protect TV and web content as well.
Copyright Act of 1976
The U.S. Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976 to recognize and protect original works in a number of new media, including television (TV). This act gave television producers the right to control the reproduction or distribution of original content broadcast on TV. Television producers could now exercise legal protection over their work while licensing content to networks or cable channels (for re-broadcasting or "re-runs"). This act also specified the terms of fair use, under which an individual or organization may reproduce or distribute content owned by another. For instance, fair use allows a teacher to show a partial clip from a recorded television program (for example, from the History Channel) to students without having to pay royalties and without infringing upon the copyright.
Digital Millennium Copyright Act
In 1998, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) into law. This act enabled the U.S. government to enforce provisions laid out by two treaties passed in 1996 by the World Intellectual Property Organization. The DMCA prohibits code-cracking programs or devices used to copy software. It also removed liability for Internet service providers (such as Comcast) in the event someone uses their servers or web architecture to engage in copyright infringement. However, the DMCA set up the expectation that service providers or websites (such as YouTube) would take down any content that infringed on copyright. This act continued to uphold all fair use exemptions specified by the Copyright Act of 1976.
No Electronic Theft Act
All violations of copyright law can result in civil and criminal penalties, including fines, a plaintiff's legal fees, civil damages and, in some cases, imprisonment. The No Electronic Theft Act (NET) expanded criminal penalties to the Internet and enabled the U.S. federal government to prosecute violations of copyright carried out on the Web. Under NET, those who distribute or reproduce copyright protected content (including TV broadcasts) via the Internet can face criminal charges and penalties of up to $250,00 in fines and three years imprisonment. According to NET, criminal copyright infringement occurs even if an individual shares content for free.