copyright: an overview
The U.S. Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 - 810, is Federal legislation enacted by Congress under its Constitutional grant of authority to protect the writings of authors. See U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8. Changing technology has led to an ever expanding understanding of the word "writings." The Copyright Act now reaches architectural design, software, the graphic arts, motion pictures, and sound recordings. See § 106. As of January 1, 1978, all works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression and within the subject matter of copyright were deemed to fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Copyright Act regardless of whether the work was created before or after that date and whether published or unpublished. See § 301. See also preemption.
The owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, license, and to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work. See § 106. The exclusive rights of the copyright owner are subject to limitation by the doctrine of "fair use." See § 107. Fair use of a copyrighted work for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research is not copyright infringement. To determine whether or not a particular use qualifies as fair use, courts apply a multi-factor balancing test. See § 107.
Copyright protection subsists in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. See § 102. Copyright protection does not extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery. For example, if a book is written describing a new system of bookkeeping, copyright protection only extends to the author's description of the bookkeeping system; it does not protect the system itself. See Baker v. Selden, 101 U.S. 99 (1879).
According to the Copyright Act of 1976, registration of copyright is voluntary and may take place at any time during the term of protection. See § 408. Although registration of a work with the Copyright Office is not a precondition for protection, an action for copyright infringement may not be commenced until the copyright has been formally registered with the Copyright Office. See § 411.
Deposit of copies with the Copyright Office for use by the Library of Congress is a separate requirement from registration. Failure to comply with the deposit requirement within three months of publication of the protected work may result in a civil fine. See § 407. The Register of Copyrights may exempt certain categories of material from the deposit requirement.
In 1989 the U.S. joined the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. In accordance with the requirements of the Berne Convention, notice is no longer a condition of protection for works published after March 1, 1989. This change to the notice requirement applies only prospectively to copies of works publicly distributed after after March 1, 1989.
The Berne Convention also modified the rule making copyright registration a precondition to commencing a lawsuit for infringement. For works originating from a Berne Convention country, an infringement action may be initiated without registering the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. However, for works of U.S. origin, registration prior to filing suit is still required.
The federal agency charged with administering the act is the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress. See § 701 of the act. Its regulations are found in Parts 201 - 204 of title 37 of the Code of Federal Regulations.