Expiration of Copyright Law for VHS Tapes

Stack of vhs tapes
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Your business could use additional sales material to beef up your presentation or advertisements, so you consider using material from a collection of old VHS tapes gathering dust in your basement. Doing so would likely be a violation of copyright law. Although the copyright term on every movie contained on VHS will eventually expire, most haven’t entered the public domain yet.

Motion Pictures and Copyright Terms

The creator of a motion picture or other video immediately receives copyright protection for that work when it’s fixed in a final format, such as a VHS tape, film or digital tape. Even without registering the work, he and his estate enjoy full copyright protection for his life plus 70 years. If a corporation produced the video, the copyright extends for 95 years from its date of release or 120 years from its date of creation, whichever is shorter. Although length of copyright terms changed as copyright laws evolved, most movies made after 1923 are still protected by copyright.

Copyrights and VHS Tapes

A copyright holder controls the copyright on the movie itself, not on the physical medium upon which it is stored. Because of this, you must examine the year the film was originally produced, not when your copy was manufactured to determine its copyright expiration date. For example, the copyright on a VHS that contains Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 film “The Kid” that you purchased recently has expired, while a copy of “Star Wars” purchased in 1986 is still covered by copyright.

Copyright Guarantees

The holder of the copyright stored on a VHS tape or any other medium controls all use of her film. This includes duplication and distribution rights, performance rights (your VHS is likely licensed for in-home use only) and the right to make derivative works from the film. This prohibits you from using any portion of the material on a VHS in your company’s sales materials or advertising without the owner’s permission, making copies of films stored on VHS or screening videos anywhere outside your home until the copyright term expires.

Copyright Infringement Penalties

Ignorance of copyright law or the copyright status of a film on a VHS isn’t a defense against charges of copyright infringement. If the owner of the copyright formally registered the work with the U.S. Copyright Office, you may face fines of up to $150,000 per infringement and owe the copyright holder for any losses incurred by your infringement as well as all legal fees. Any materials that contain infringing material may also be impounded by the court, or you may receive an order to stop using the infringing material in any way.

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