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Copyright law generally

Article 1, section 8, clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution states:

This clause is the basis of federal copyright legislation. Pursuant to that clause, Congress enacted Title 17 of the U.S. Code on July 30, 1947. On October 19, 1976, Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976, which substantially revised the federal copyright regime. The 1976 Act is substantially the law today.

Stated simply, copyright law protects author by forbidding others to copy his or her original work for a limited period of time (generally for the life of the author, plus fifty years. 17 U.S.C. § 302). However, a key question is what constitutes"original work." (for example, reciting mere historical facts is not "original.")

In addition, certain exceptions exist to this general rule. For example, the Fair Use doctrine creates exceptions for educational uses of original works, for example a professor's use of excerpts in a classroom, or this site's use of excerpts of book and movie reviews.

With respect to literature, copyright is not extended merely to the words of a text; if this were so, plagiarists could steal characters, plots, and settings merely by changing a word or two of the original text. Instead, courts inquire as to the part taken from the original -- be it a character, plot, literal text, or other aspect -- is "substantial." Because "plagiarism" is not a recognized cause of action by itself, it is usually pled as claims for copyright infringement, breach of contract, breach of confidence, fraud, negligent misrepresentation, unfair competition, ar misrepresentation. Combined in a single complaint they create quite a procedural puzzle because copyright infringement is a claim over which federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction, while the other claims are state law claims over which state courts have jurisdiction.