Copyright in the United States

Copyright Definition

The exclusive privilege, secured according to certain legal forms, of printing, publishing, and vending (according to the definition of Copyright based on the Cyclopedic Law Dictionary . ) copies of writings or drawings. 14 How. (U.S.) 530. Literally the word copyright means the right to copy a work or the right to the copy. Read more about definitions of Copyright in the legal Dictionaries.

Plain-English Law

The right granted under federal law (Copyright as defined by Nolo’s Encyclopedia of Everyday Law (p. 437-455)) for the owner of a creative work (such as a book, motion picture, musical composition, software, or artwork), to prohibit unauthorized use of the work.

Copyright Law in the United States

Introduction to Copyright

Although the Copyright Act of 1909 no longer applies to new copyrights, it still functions as U.S. law in certain cases. This is because the copyright status of a work is governed by the law in effect at the time the work was created. Consequently, for works created before 1978, the effective date of the 1976 Copyright Act, the 1909 law applies. Under that law, federal copyright protection began when the work was first published. Publication required the distribution of copies of the work to the public. After publication, the work was entitled to 28 years of copyright protection. The copyright could then be renewed for a second term of 28 years, providing a maximum term of 56 years.

Under the 1976 act, copyright protection begins as soon as the work is fixed-that is, written down or recorded in some manner-regardless of whether it is published. As originally adopted, the 1976 act granted copyright protection for the life of the author plus 50 years. Starting in the mid-1990s, several parties began campaigning for Congress to lengthen this term. In part this was because the European Union (EU) had extended the duration of copyrights in Europe in 1993. A longer term was also supported by large corporate copyright owners who did not want to see their copyrights expire. For example, The Walt Disney Company advocated additional copyright protection because the copyright on its Mickey Mouse character was about to expire in 2003.

In response to these lobbying efforts, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) in 1998. The act extended the term of copyrights, so that now a copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. Once a copyright expires, anyone is free to copy or use the work, and the work is said to be “in the public domain.”

After this act was passed, several parties who used public domain materials in their businesses filed a lawsuit to challenge the CTEA. They argued that the new law violated the constitutional rule that Congress may grant copyright only for “limited terms.” In 2003 the Supreme Court of the United States rejected this argument in a 7 to 2 ruling and upheld the CTEA.

Special rules govern the ownership and duration of copyrights by employees who create a work in the normal course of their job. Under these rules, the copyright belongs to the employer and lasts 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is earlier. The amended 1976 act gives a special term-95 years from publication-to works published by an employee before January 1, 1978, but whose copyrights had not yet expired by that date.” (1)

Copyright in Political Campaigns

By Andrew Stroud (2009), whois a partner at the law firm of Mennemeier, Glassman & Stroud in Sacramento, where he practices intellectual property law and advises political campaigns on IP issues.

In the summer of 2008, the McCain campaign incurred the wrath of ’70s rock group Heart, whose song “Barracuda” blared over the speakers at vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s rallies. The McCain campaign and the Republican Party also angered several other well-known bands and songwriters, including The Foo Fighters, John Mellencamp, and Jackson Browne, by using various copyrighted works of theirs along the campaign trail. Mr. Browne did not take the use of his song “Running on Empty” lying down. He filed a suit for copyright infringement that is still pending (Browne v. McCain, No. 08-05334 (C.D. Cal., filed August 14, 2008)).

In 1984 Bruce Springsteen complained when Ronald Reagan used his song “Born in the USA” during Reagan’s run for reelection. In many cases, an artist’s protest puts an end to the problem. In the Reagan-Springsteen episode, the campaign quickly (and quietly) stopped using the song when it realized the true message of the lyrics.

The unauthorized use of songs is only one aspect of a larger problem. Piracy of all types of intellectual property is serious business. Protectable creative material utilized for political purposes can include writings, songs, photographs, film clips, fictional characters, images, logos, and much more. And the legal questions reach beyond copyright to the core values of the First Amendment.

Can a clip of Governor Schwarzenegger taken from a popular movie be used in television ads against him? Can newspaper articles be quoted in political ads, either to support or attack a candidate? Can an Internet posting be used in a brochure? These questions arise every day in the era of multimedia political campaigns. Campaigns need to know whether using creative material in support of their candidate violates other parties’ intellectual property rights, especially those protected by the federal Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. §§ 101-1132).

Copyright Protection

Under the Copyright Act, the owner of a copyright is given exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, and display that work, and to authorize others to do so (17 U.S.C. § 106). These include the exclusive right to prepare works derived from the copyrighted work, known as derivative works. Therefore, unless a political campaign owns the copyright or has the copyright owner’s permission, that campaign cannot use someone else’s copyrighted work in its ads without violating the Copyright Act. It does not matter whether the copyright is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office (17 U.S.C. § 408). Copyright protection exists from the moment of creation of a work. And even if the work has not been registered, it is still entitled to copyright protection, although no infringement claim can be filed prior to registration of a work (17 U.S.C. § 411(a); see also Arthur Rutenberg Homes, Inc. v. Drew Homes, Inc., 29 F.3d 1529, 1532 (11th Cir. 1994)).

The First Amendment

Because political advertising appears to represent the ultimate exercise of constitutionally protected free speech, campaigns may be tempted to believe that it is beyond the reach of intellectual property law. After all, it is well settled that “the First Amendment ‘has its fullest and most urgent application’ to speech uttered during a campaign for political office.” (Eu v. San Francisco County Democratic Council Comm., 489 U.S. 214, 223 (1989), quoting Monitor Patriot Co. v. Roy, 401 U.S. 265, 272 (1971).) Political speech has been declared “at the core of the First Amendment” (Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312, 318 (1988)), which has also been deemed to reflect a “profound national commitment” that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1964)).

The copyright clause actually predates the First Amendment, as it was part of the original Constitution, while the First Amendment was added through the Bill of Rights. Accordingly, the framers could not have intended that the First Amendment completely abrogate copyright law, nor should any present-day politico be so deceived.

Tension Between Rights

There is an inherent tension between copyright law, which can restrict speech, and the First Amendment, which exists to protect speech. The relationship between the two has been explored by numerous courts over the years, and most have concluded that the First Amendment does not provide a complete defense to a copyright-infringement claim.

In Harper & Row Publishers Inc. v. Nation Enterprises (471 U.S. 539 (1985)), the Supreme Court specifically rejected the assertion that the First Amendment provides a complete defense to a claim of copyright infringement. In Harper & Row, the Nation magazine had obtained without authorization excerpts from President Ford’s soon-to-be released memoirs and proceeded to publish an article containing some of the excerpts. When Harper & Row, which owned the rights to Ford’s memoirs, sued for copyright infringement, the Nation argued that its actions were protected by the First Amendment because Ford was a national political figure and his memoirs were of substantial public interest. The Supreme Court rejected the Nation’s First Amendment defense, finding that even if an author is a political figure and the author’s expressions are extremely newsworthy, the author still enjoys the protections of copyright law.

In fact, the Court noted that “the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression” by guaranteeing rights of authors to protect their artistic works from infringement by others (Harper & Row, 471 U.S. at 558).

Fair Use

As with any copyright-infringement claim, the allegedly infringing political campaign may raise the “fair use” defense–the most prevalent defense used in copyright claims. To determine whether the use of infringing material is a “fair use,” courts apply a four-factor test. The four factors, which are codified in the Copyright Act, are: (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use on the potential market for and value of the copyrighted work (see 17 U.S.C. § 107). A First Amendment defense to an alleged infringement is predicated on the fair use doctrine and presented to the court through application of these four factors.

This is precisely the analysis the Ninth Circuit utilizes when it considers the application of the First Amendment to copyright-infringement claims. The Ninth Circuit has assiduously avoided the “briar patch” of engaging in a per se First Amendment analysis in copyright-infringement actions by finding that “First Amendment concerns in copyright cases are subsumed within the fair use inquiry” (Elvis Presley Enterprises. Inc. v. Passport Video, 349 F.3d 622 (9th Cir. 2003), cert. denied, 542 U.S. 921 (2004)).

Specifically, the first factor focuses on “the purpose and character of the use.” If the purpose and character of the use is for political advertising, then the First Amendment implications will weigh heavily in favor of a finding of fair use, because the use is for a purpose that lies at the very core of protected speech. “Although the First Amendment does not provide a defense to copyright infringement, when an act of copying occurs in the course of political, social or moral debate, the public interest in free expression is one factor favoring a finding of fair use.” (Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Moral Majority, Inc., 606 F. Supp. 1526, 1536 (C.D. Cal. 1985).)

Fair Use Limitations

In light of the Hustler Magazine decision, a political campaign may be able to use portions of filmed interviews, clips from movies, or quotes from published newspaper reports without being liable for copyright infringement.

That’s because the materials are used not for commercial purposes but for political purposes protected by the fair use defense. (See, e.g., Keep Thompson Governor Comm. v. Citizens for Gallen Comm., 457 F. Supp. 957 (D. N.H. 1978) (use of portion of copyrighted song in political ad not likely to constitute infringement).)

But the use of copyrighted materials in campaign ads is not without limitation. The fair use test contains four factors, and the “public purpose” of the use is only one of them. Even though the use may not be for commercial purposes, a campaign can still be held liable for copyright infringement if it violates the remaining three fair use factors. Critical to the fair use analysis is consideration of the amount of material used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, and the economic impact of the use on the copyright holder. Campaigns should refrain from using full and complete copies of interviews or photographs, because such wholesale copying could deny economic benefit to the copyright holders who are entitled to exploit their copyrighted works for profit.

Wholesale misappropriation of a copyrighted work, even for political purposes, can cause significant liability to political campaigns. In one case, a candidate used a photograph of his opponent, taken from his opponent’s ad, in his own campaign ad. The freelance photographer who owned the copyright to the photograph brought a copyright-infringement action because the candidate had used the photograph without the plaintiff’s permission. The court found that although the photograph had undeniably been used in a political ad, this was not a fair use because the copyright owner was entitled to compensation for use of the photo. Thus, the court affirmed a judgment against the defendant for $500, the amount the jury found that the plaintiff should have been paid for use of the photograph; in addition, the court awarded the plaintiff more than $70,000 for attorneys fees and costs (Long v. Ballantine, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7813 (E.D. N.C. 1998)). The fact that a speech or other work was created for political purposes does not in itself mean that another party can use it for any purpose, especially if the misappropriation is wholesale (Jackson v. MPI Home Video, 694 F. Supp. 483 (N.D. Ill. 1988) (unauthorized sale of videotape of 1988 convention speech given by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson not protected by fair use)).

Is It a Parody?

In addition to the fair use defense, campaigns also frequently assert that they are protected from a copyright-infringement claim because their ads are “parodies” of the copyrighted work. As the Ninth Circuit has held, “parody is regarded as a form of social and literary criticism, having a socially significant value as free speech under the First Amendment.” (Dr. Suess Enterprises L.P. v. Penguin Books USA, Inc., 109 F.3d 1394, 1400 (9th Cir. 1997).) Parody is a subset of the fair use doctrine. If an ad is determined to be a parody, “the second, third, and fourth [fair use] factors are unlikely to militate against a finding of fair use.” (Abilene Music Inc. v. Sony Music Entertainment, Inc., 320 F. Supp. 2d 84, 89 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).)

Although a parody finding can provide a defense against a copyright-infringement claim, the difficulty of the parody defense is that it is not always clear what constitutes parody. As established by the U.S. Supreme Court, the “threshold question when fair use is raised in defense of parody is whether a parodic character may reasonably be perceived.” (Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 583 (1994).) In lay terms, if the court gets the parody, then the use will not be determined an infringement. If the court does not, then the defense will likely fail.

In his 2000 run for president, Ralph Nader’s campaign ran an ad that mimicked MasterCard’s well-known “Priceless” advertisements. Like the MasterCard ads, Nader’s showed several different items and the price of each (“Grilled tenderloin for fund-raiser, $1,000 a plate”; “Campaign ads filled with half-truths, $10 million”; “Promises to special interest groups, over $100 billion”). Nader’s ad ended with the tagline: “Finding out the truth, priceless.” (See MasterCard Int’l Inc. v. Nader 2000 Primary Comm., Inc., 2004 U.S. Dist. Lexis 3644 (S.D.N.Y. 2004).) Although Nader’s ad borrowed both the look and feel of the MasterCard ad and its famous tagline, the court granted summary judgment to Nader, finding that the parody was protected because the parodic character of the ad could reasonably be perceived (see also American Family Life Ins. Co. v. Hagan, 266 F. Supp. 2d 682 (N.D. Ohio 2002) (unauthorized use of animated “Taft Quack” duck may constitute protected parody of well-known AFLAC duck)). But remember, the parody defense works only if the court gets the joke.

Faced with the question of whether they can use someone else’s copyrighted materials in their own ads, campaigns– like all other good citizens–should seek permission to use the copyrighted work first, before the ad is released. For example, when Heart demanded that the McCain campaign cease and desist from using “Barracuda,” the campaign declined to do so because it had purchased a license from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) to use the song at public events. A caveat: There are different kinds of licenses, and you must be sure you’ve purchased the right one for the use you anticipate. A license to use lyrics does not entitle you to use an artists’ rendition of a given song. And a license to use an artist’s version may not entitle you to cover the tune with your own band. An all-encompassing license may be safest.

Copyright in the United States Constitution

According to the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, about its article titled COPYRIGHT, the Framers of the Constitution delegated to the national government authority to enact copyright laws. The copyright power, together with the patent power, is found in Article I, section 8, clause 8, which empowers Congress “to promote the progress of science and useful arts”.

Copyright in the U.S. Code

The United States Copyright Code appears in Title 17 of the United State Code.

Copyright in Foreign Legal Encyclopedias

Link Description
Copyright Copyright in the World Legal Encyclopedia.
Copyright Copyright in the European Legal Encyclopedia.
Copyright Copyright in the Asian Legal Encyclopedia.
Copyright Copyright in the UK Legal Encyclopedia.
Copyright Copyright in the Australian Legal Encyclopedia.

Guide to Copyright: In this Section

  • Copyright Subject Matter,
  • Copyright Notice and Registration,
  • Rights of Copyright Owners and Licensing,
  • Copyright Infringement and Fair Use.

Copyright (Related Legal Issues)

This section introduces, discusses and describes the basics of copyright. Then, cross references and a brief overview about Related Legal Issues is provided. Finally, the subject of Communications Law in relation with copyright is examined. Note that a list of cross references, bibliography and other resources appears at the end of this entry.


See Also

  • International Copyright
  • Intellectual Property
  • Trademarks
  • Internet Applications
  • Patents
  • Security
  • World Wide Web
  • U.S. Patent Office

Notes and References

Further Reading (Books)

Albiniak, Paige. “Do Not Bypass Go.” Broadcasting and Cable. 6 November 2000.

Butler, Susan. “Piracy a Fight for All.” Billboard. 14 January 2006.

“Buying Books One Page At a Time.” New York Times Upfront. 9 January 2006.

Copyright Basics From the U.S. Copyright Office. Copyright Office, n.d.

Harmon, Amy. “Copyright and Copying Wrongs: A Web Rebalancing Act.” New York Times. 10 September 2000.

James-Enger, Kelly. “Dear Writer.” The Writer. February 2006.

Matthews, Anna Wilde. “Copyrights on Web Content are Backed.” Wall Street Journal. 27 October 2000.

Miller, Michael J. “Why Google Print is More Important Than You Think.” PC Magazine. 27 December 2995.

Peek, Robin. “The Digital Rights Management Dilemma.” Information Today. November 2000.

“Politicians In No Mood to Change Copyright Law.” Broadcast Engineering. 13 December 2005.

Hillstrom, Northern Lights

updated by Magee, ECDI

Davis, Randall. “The Digital Dilemma.” Communications of the ACM, 44, no. 2 (2001) 77_83.

Miller, Arthur R., and Michael H. Davis. Intellectual Property in a Nutshell. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 2000.

Further Reading (Books 2)

Chisum, Donald S., and Michael A. Jacobs. Understanding Intellectual Property Law. New York: Matthew Bender, 1992.

Halpern, Sheldon W., Craig Allen Nard, and Kenneth L. Port. Fundamentals of United States Intellectual Property Law: Copyright, Patent, and Trademark. The Hague, Netherlands: Kluwer Law International, 1999.

John A.Kidwell

Further Reading (Articles)

Beastly Measures: Animal Welfare, Civil Society, and State Policy in Victorian Canada, Journal of Canadian Studies; January 1, 2013; Ingram, Darcy

Rights of Passage: The Intersecting of Environmentalism, Arctic Sovereignty, and the Law of the Sea, 1968-82, Journal of Canadian Studies; January 1, 2013; Meren, David Plumptre, Bora

A Mystery in Africa That Began with a Horrific Crime, International Wire; May 2, 2014

Eastern Ukraine Where Today Pro-Russian Forces Released the European Military Observers They Had Been Holding Captive, International Wire; May 3, 2014

New Anne Frank play opening in Amsterdam, AP Online; May 8, 2014; By TOBY STERLING

‘ Mohit’s Pace Has Increased after Change in Action’, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 28, 2014

Modi Tops Bets Case Scenarios, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 28, 2014

CJI Wants to Raise the Bar on Ethics, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 28, 2014

Conmen ‘ Sell’aviation Ministry Land for ` 12cr, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 28, 2014

Interceptor Missile Trial Successful, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 28, 2014

Priyanka Tears into BJP with Rodent Jibe, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 28, 2014

Urgent SC Hearing of Case Today, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 28, 2014

Gujarat, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 28, 2014

Madhya Pradesh, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 28, 2014

26 Kilos Gold Pilfered from Padmatemple, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 26, 2014

Bjp Writes to Prez on Army Chief Appointment, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 26, 2014

Namo Targets Sonia & Rahul, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 26, 2014

Biggies Miss Out, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 26, 2014

Nowthat’s Smart!, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 27, 2014

Doctor Held for Raping Sibling for 12 Years, Mail Today (New Delhi, India); April 27, 2014

Copyright in E-Commerce Law

Copyright and the Legal Aspects of E-Commerce


See Also

  • E-Commerce Regulations
  • Online Business Law
  • Online Business Regulations


Find more information on Copyright in relation to the Gray Market Goods in the legal Encyclopedias.

Copyright and the International Trade Law


See Also

Further Reading

  • Copyright entry in the Dictionary of International Trade Law (Raj Bhala)
  • Copyright entry in the Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History (Thomas Carson; Mary Bonk)
  • Copyright entry in the Dictionary of International Trade
  • Copyright entry in the Dictionary of International Trade: Handbook of the Global Trade Community (Edward G. Hinkelman)

Copyright: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Copyright. This part provides references, in relation to Copyright, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Copyright by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Copyright and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Copyright or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Copyright and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Copyright. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Copyright should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Copyright when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

*This resource guide is updated frequently. However, if you notice something is wrong or not working, or any resources that should be added, please notify us in any of the "Leave a Comment" area.

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