Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works. Copyright law protects original works, such as websites, books, music, paintings, photos and video.
An original work
A work is “original” if it contains some elements you created and did not borrow from others. Typically, when you create an original work, you own the copyright. As the copyright owner, you can control how others use your work. For example, if you write a movie script, you have the right to, and can prevent others from, copying your script, sharing it with others (“distributing it”), making a movie or book from your script (a “derivative work”), or publicly performing your script as a play or movie. You also have the ability to sell or give away these rights. In other words, you could sell the right to make a movie based on your script to a movie studio.
If you use someone else’s copyrighted materials without permission, that use generally violates the copyright owner’s exclusive rights, and is copyright infringement. So if you create a new work and include parts of other people’s works in it (such as an existing photo, lengthy quotes from a book or a loop from a song), you must own or have permission to use the elements you borrow. For example, if your script is based on an existing popular series, you should obtain permission to use the elements you borrow from the series.
Copyright law is different from the law of personal property. If you buy a physical object, such as a movie on DVD, you own the physical object. You do not, however, obtain ownership of the “copyrights” (the rights to make copies, distribute, make derivatives and publicly perform or display) in the content of the movie. The fact that you have obtained physical possession of a DVD does not automatically grant you the right to copy or share it.
If you make your own movie, it may include many copyrighted works in it. So, if you decide to make a movie based on your script, you must either create all elements of it on your own, or have permission to use the elements you borrow. Especially keep in mind that photos or artwork hanging on the walls of your sets and music on the soundtrack (even if you own the CD or MP3) may be copyrighted. You should not include copyrighted works such as these in your movie without authorization.
A few other things to keep in mind are:
Just because a work does not include a copyright notice (e.g., © 2007 Suchandsuch Corporation) does not mean the work is in the public domain. Copyright notices are generally not required for works to be protected by copyright.
Isn’t it in the public domain?
Just because a work is freely available, does not mean it is in the “ public domain .” Copyright is for a limited term; it does not last forever. In the copyright context, “public domain” means the copyright term has expired. Once a work is in the public domain, it may be freely used without permission from the copyright owner.
Determining the term of copyright can be complex, particularly because copyright laws vary from country to country. Also, even if the copyright on a work has expired, you should be careful about how you use a public domain work. For example, a book may be in the public domain, but it might not be okay to scan the book cover to cover and post it on the internet. This is because the particular version of the book may contain new material subject to copyright that is not in the public domain, such as cover art or footnotes.
What about fair use?
In limited situations, you can use copyrighted works without permission from the copyright holder. It can be difficult to figure out whether use of copyrighted works without permission is legal, though, because the laws in this area are often vague and vary from country to country.
The copyright law in the United States has a doctrine called “ fair use ”. Fair use provides a defense to copyright infringement in some circumstances. For example, fair use allows documentary filmmakers to use very short clips of copyrighted movies, music and news footage without permission from the copyright owner. Fair use is a difficult concept because determining whether something is a fair use involves weighing four factors. Unfortunately, weighing the fair use factors rarely results in a clear-cut answer.
Rather than applying a fair use test, many other countries have specific exceptions to copyright infringement. The number and type of exceptions vary by country, but they frequently allow copyrighted materials to be used without permission from the copyright holder for activities such as nonprofit research, teaching, news reporting, or private study.
If you incorrectly decide that something is a fair use or falls into an exception to copyright infringement, you could be held criminally and civilly liable and have to pay damages. So talk to a lawyer if you have questions regarding fair uses of copyrighted works.
What happens if you upload copyrighted materials to a website without permission?
By law, web hosts are required to take down videos, music, photographs or other content you upload onto a website infringes someone else’s copyright. If you believe that the web host has mistakenly taken down content you uploaded that you own or have permission to upload, notify them of that. Finally, if you upload infringing content repeatedly, a web host will terminate your account and you could face criminal and civil penalties. So please, respect other people’s copyrights.
See also: 10 big myths about copyright explained
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