Why Are Copyright Laws Important?

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Copyright laws protect the rights of the author, artist or other originator of a creative work to control when and how his work can be copied and disseminated, and it prevents others from appropriating the work without permission. Copyright protects the ability of someone to profit from his creative work, but the protection is not absolute.

Basis in Law

Copyright is a basic legal doctrine that traces its roots to Elizabethan England. Later, the U.S. Constitution granted Congress power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors … the exclusive right to their respective writings.” Subsequent copyright legislation extends copyright to literary, dramatic and other artistic works, musical recordings and compositions, computer programs, and other original works of expression put down in a “tangible” form.

Two Conflicting Goals

Harvard’s Office of the General Counsel writes that copyright laws “attempt to reconcile two conflicting goals.” Copyright grants some ownership rights to creators of intellectual property, giving them control on how their work can be used and allowing them to be paid for its use. This encourages works of artistic and creative expression by providing incentives to their authors. Yet copyright law also has the goal of allowing society to benefit from new ideas and information, so it limits protection to the form in which ideas and information are expressed, but not to the ideas and information themselves.

Rights Granted to Copyright Owners

Copyright protects a work the moment it is put down in tangible form, such as written on paper or in a computer file, or any other means that allows it to be read, heard or viewed. The copyright owner has the exclusive right to make copies of the work; to distribute copies for sale, donation, lending or rental; to produce derivative works of the original; and to publicly display or perform the work.


Anyone who, without permission of the copyright owner, attempts to copy, distribute, display, perform or produce a derivative of a copyrighted work infringes on the copyright, whether or not the work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office or carries a copyright notice. Registration and display of the copyright notice carries legal advantages. A copyright owner can file suit against someone who has infringed on his copyright to recover damages for loss of sales caused by infringement. If he registered the copyright, he can recover statutory damages of up to $30,000 without needing to prove actual damages, or up to $150,000 if the court finds the infringement was willful. A copyright notice displayed on the work precludes any legal defense by the infringing party that he was unaware the work was copyrighted, making an infringement suit eligible to seek the higher statutory damages.

Fair Use

A major restriction the law places on copyright is the doctrine of “fair use.” The doctrine allows excerpts of a copyrighted work to be reproduced for purposes of criticism and comment, news reporting, scholarship and research. There are no specific limits to the amount that can be reproduced before it infringes on copyright. Instead, the law instructs courts to consider the purpose and character of the use, such as if it’s for commercial purposes or educational purposes. The courts must also consider the nature of the copyrighted work along with the amount and “substantiality” of the portion used in relation to the whole. Finally, the courts can judge the effect of the excerpt’s use on the potential market for the copyrighted work to determine if the use was fair or an infringement.

Copyright Terms

Under current law, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. A pseudonymous work or a work made for hire is protected for 95 years from first publication, or 120 years from the work’s creation, whichever comes first. For works published prior to 1978, the terms of copyright will depend on various factors as they relate to earlier versions of copyright law. Works published prior to 1923 are no longer under copyright and are considered to be in the public domain.

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