What Are the Copyright Laws of Pictures, Music, Sound & Information?

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Doing business in the digital age frequently involves using multimedia elements, and every sound or image was created by someone, and therefore potentially owned by someone. Copyright law provides clear legal guidelines designed to protect and encourage the creation of sounds, visual images and information technology -- but also a number of gray areas that are still being tested in court.

Exclusive Rights

A copyright gives the creator or owner the exclusive right to perform or display the work, to make copies and distribute the work, including digital transmission, i.e., over the Internet, and to "prepare derivative works based upon the work." Others may use part or all of the work in certain cases, such as critical review or academic work, under the "fair use" doctrine.

Length of Copyright

A copyright has a specified duration, typically the lifespan of the author plus 70 years afterward. For collaborative works, or works made for hire, a copyright will be in effect for 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is shorter. There are also different terms for works published before 1978, when the U.S. Copyright Law was amended, and before 1923 -- which are in the "public domain" and therefore available for unrestricted use. The copyright holder may license or transfer the copyright, allowing someone else full or partial use of the work, but the copyright itself is never transferred and the copyright term is never extended or renewed.

Copyright and Registration

A copyright goes into effect the moment you create a work. You are not required to file for a copyright to be recognized by law as the rightful owner. However, registering the work with the U.S. Copyright Office allows you to enter the work into the public record, establish a firmer defense, and gain the ability to initiate litigation.

Sound and Music

Music is governed by separate facets of copyright law, in that a separate copyright applies to the composition and the actual recorded music itself. A recording, which the U.S. Copyright Office refers to as a "phonorecord," may satisfy the recording and composition" copyrights together or separately, while a "notated copy" such as sheet music or lyrics can separately establish the copyright for a composition. Additionally, a recording of a non-musical sound may be copyrighted, without infringing on another recording of the same sound — i.e., the first person to record a car horn may sell the recording, but may not be able to sue others who make and sell later recordings of car horns. In contrast, a musical recording that serves to copyright the composition confers rights based on the structure and composition of the song itself -- for instance, a recording of a later performance of that song, no matter how distinct from the original recording — will still be subject to the original copyright.

Digital Images

The combination of widely used digital photography and ubiquitous social media sharing presents multiple challenges. You are the rightful owner of all photos that you've taken, as soon as they're taken. Technically, you can thereby sue if you discover that your registered copyrighted image has been used without your consent. However, by posting them online via a third-party service such as Facebook or Twitter, you often give up some rights and, depending on the respective terms of use, you may be tacitly authorizing the third parties to copy, distribute and sell the image.

Information Copyright

A recurring distinction in copyright law is that of "idea vs. expression." A copyright protects the actual creation rather than the ideas behind the work . For example, the author of a book that defines and describes a political theory is fully entitled to a copyright on the book, but others may use the theory without restriction. The litigation of copyrighted music has shown plenty of examples of songs that contained similar melodic structures, styles and lyrics -- some of which were judged as plagiarism, and some of which were deemed distinct enough to avoid violation.

Software Exceptions

The idea-expression dichotomy is at the heart of the issue of software patents and software copyrights. As with sheet music, a piece of software code is considered copyrighted material when "rendered to fixed form" -- whether written down as a "hard copy" or saved on a hard drive. However, the function or method of the software is an idea, and may or may not be patentable, depending on whether it is "useful" and "novel."


About the Author

James Lee Phillips has been a writer since 1994, specializing in technology and intellectual property issues. He holds a Bachelor of Science in communications and philosophy from SUNY Fredonia.

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