General Copyright Information

Excerpt from "The Copyright Primer" [Janis Bruwelheide. 1995. The Copyright Primer for Librarians and Educators. Chicago, IL: American Library Assn. pp.3-4.]

Copyright exists for three basic reasons: to reward authors for their original works; to encourage availability of the works to the public; and to facilitate access and use of the copyrighted works by the public in certain instances. The first copyright law was enacted in 1790, and four major revisions have followed. The most recent was the 1976 revisions of the 1909 law.

It is often asked whether the old Copyright Law applies to today's environment. Major copyright revisions have come at an average of every 50 years, and the same question must have been asked each interim. Currently congressional committees and professional groups are asking a range of questions and examining possible solutions.

Aware that new technologies would develop, authors of the 1976 Act included language in Section 102(a) that intended to be somewhat elastic when they stated the following:

Copyright protection subsists . . . in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

Section 102 lists the categories that are included as works of authorship: literary works; musical works, including any accompanying words; dramatic works, including any accompanying music; pantomimes and choreographic works; graphic, pictorial, and sculptural works; sound recordings; and architectural works. It also says that copyright protection for original works of authorship does not apply to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery. However, the manner in which an author expresses an idea, for example, is copyrightable.

Some categories of work do not enjoy copyright protection. Works of the United States government are not usually copyrightable, nor are works that lack sufficient originality. Public domain works are another example. These works include those whose copyrights have expired.

The Copyright Act grants copyright owners several specific rights* for a specific amount of time. However, these rights are not all-encompassing; educators and libraries enjoy certain other privileges, which should be exercised. In practice, escalation of information technologies and other factors create a wide range of behavior. At one end of the spectrum are the users reluctant to exercise privileges and exemptions provided for education and libraries because they do not understand what is permissible and what is not. At the opposite extreme are users who treat the copying of copyrighted materials without permission as a way to save time and money.

* Copyright involves five separate rights:

  1. The right to reproduce or copy the work
  2. The right to prepare derivative works
  3. The right to distribute copies of the work to the public
  4. In the case of audiovisual work, the right to perform the work publicly
  5. In the case of literary, musical, dramatic, or choreographic work, a pantomime or a pictorial, graphic, or sculptured work, the right to display the work publicly.

The Information and links on this site explain more details of the Copyright Issues. Additional Links and material will be available in the future as material and suggestions are submitted.