There are a large variety of copyright laws and similar regulations dealing with modern computing technology. Examples include the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), laws regarding when you can make a backup of computer software, and common-law court decisions interpreting the application of copyright law principles to the use and manipulation of computer software. Copyright protection does not extend to most forms of computer hardware as computer hardware does not contain the expressive elements necessary for copyright protection.
Origins of Software Copyrights
When computer software was first introduced it was not clear if copyright protection was applicable. The U.S. Copyright Office determined that a computer program was similar to a how-to guide and granted copyright protection to computer software provided that the software met certain requirements. The Copyright Office required that computer software express elements sufficient to display a work of original authorship, be intelligible to humans, and be published with the copyright notice that was required at the time. Copyright notice is no longer required by U.S. States Copyright Office, and since the first computer programs were copyrighted there have been many expansions in copyright law regarding computer software.
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Scope of Protection
A copyright cannot protect every aspect of computer software as many aspects are inherently functional, as opposed to expressive, and based on algorithms, ideas, methods, concepts or logical systems. Some of these aspects of computer software may be eligible for patent protection rather than copyright protection. The expressive elements of ideas and concepts may be protected under copyright law but the underlying ideas and concepts themselves are not independently worthy of registration. Copyright protection will extend to many other elements of computer software including the screen display projected by the computer software, the look and feel of the software, the computer code, and any other aspects of the software containing a minimal degree of originality.
Copyright law prohibits the unauthorized copying, distribution or dissemination of copyrighted works. These restrictions create a unique circumstance for computer software because of the ease with which computer software can be copied and distributed to third parties. Under Section 117 of the United States Copyright Act, individuals who hold a valid copy of computer software are entitled to make one copy for the limited purpose of archiving or backing up their computer software. Copyright law does not permit software users to distribute copies of protected computer software, and if the original software is sold or transferred, any backup copies must be destroyed.
Digital Millennium Copyright Act
The DMCA is one of the major modern copyright laws governing the use of copyrighted material over the Internet. The "safe harbor" provisions of the DMCA protect Internet service providers and website hosts from liability associated with copyrighted material that may be posted on their website by third parties. The DMCA allows a party who believes that his copyright has been infringed to send a notice of infringement demanding that the website host remove the content. As long as website hosts comply with such demands they are generally protected from claims of vicarious copyright infringement. In addition to safe harbor provisions, the DMCA contains provisions prohibiting circumvention of hardware and software access controls and technical protection measures.
- U.S. Copyright Office: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998
- Electronic Frontier Foundation: Digital Millennium Copyright Act
- U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright and Digital Files
- Ladas and Parry, LLP: Ladas & Parry Guide to Statutory Protection for Computer Software in the United States
- Digital Law Online: Copyright of Computer Programs
- Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images