Copyright Law

What is copyright?

Laws on copyright have their source, first of all, in the constitutional mandate given to Congress. Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution says: "The Congress shall have Power To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

The idea is that granting exclusive rights to authors and inventors encourages them to be creative and inventive, mainly because they can make money from their works and, in turn, afford to continue making them.

The other side of the coin is that the government needs to encourage sharing these works with the public to promote the "public good," and thus the protection is limited in time and in scope.

What are the laws?

The current fundamental law which controls copyright is creatively called The Copyright Act of 1976 or "The Lanham Act" after Mr. Lanham, who authored the bill in Congress. The Act has been amended frequently to accommodate Walt Disney and others who have a large interest in the subject.

It has also, fortunately for us, recently been amended to take account of changes in the educational environment. The TEACH Act of 2002 was developed in an effort to deal with teaching in the digital age.

Then there is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which will keep lawyers and judges busy for decades to come.

There are lots more laws, but these are the big ones.

What rights does the copyright holder have?

  • The right to reproduce (make copies of) the work
  • The right to prepare derivative works based on it
  • The right to distribute it (or copies of it)
  • The right to perform it publicly
  • The right to display it publicly
  • The right to digitally transmit a sound recording

Unless you can use one or more of the legal exceptions, you must get permission to do any of these things with a copyrighted work.

Damages - the down side

If you break the law, then what?

  • Temporary and permanent injunction against infringement
  • Impoundment of infringing copies
  • Destruction or other reasonable disposition of the infringing copies and any masters of negatives of infringing copies
  • Actual damages to the owner
  • Profits of the infringer attributable to the infringement
  • Court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees
  • Statutory damages: In lieu of actual damages and profits a copyright holder may seek statutory damages ranging from $30,000 to $150, 000 per infringement depending on the willfulness of the infringement