A Copyright is a form of legal protection automatically provided to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works. The US Constitution authorizes Congress to “promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The federal copyright law arises from the portions of this clause concerning “authors” and “writings.” Thus, copyright law exists to serve a specified utilitarian goal: to promote the progress of science and the useful arts. Copyright protection serves this goal by giving authors an incentive to create works that will benefit the public.
The copyright owner has a right to exclude. For example, they may prevent other persons from reproducing, distributing performing, or publically displaying their work without their permission. Additionally, they may transfer their copyright to others and effectively destroy it by abandoning it.
Many different types of works are protected by US copyright law including:
- Literary works
- Music and lyrics
- Dramatic works and music
- Pantomimes and choreographic works
- Photographs, graphics, paintings, and sculptural works
- Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
- Video games and computer software
- Audio recordings
- Architectural work
Despite the fact that many different types of creative works are copyrightable under existing federal law, several other creative works such as ideas are also not copyrightable. Only tangible forms of expression (e.g., a book, play, drawing, film, or photo, etc.) are copyrightable. Once you express your idea in a fixed form as a digital painting, recorded song, or even scribbled on a napkin, it is automatically copyrighted if it is an original work of authorship. Unfixed works that have not been recorded in a tangible, fixed form (e.g., a song you made up and sang in the shower), works in the public domain, titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; numbers, ideas and facts, processes and systems (e.g., the Dewey decimal system), and federal government works (e.g., the tax code) are not copyrightable under US law.
The author/creator, their heirs assuming that the creator is dead, creators of a joint work, and anyone to whom the author/creator has given or assigned his or her copyright (e.g., an employer if the copyrighted work is created under a “work made for hire” agreement, a publisher or record company if the copyrighted work is given in exchange for a publishing or recording contract) are copyright owners under the law.
With regards to recorded music, if a person writes a song and records it, that person is the creator and owns the copyright. But professionally produced music can have many copyright owners. For example, the copyright to a particular sound recording may be owned by the songwriter, the performer, the producer, a record label (i.e. the RCA-Victor, Columbia, Supraphon, Esta, etc.), a publisher, or a combination thereof. The 1976 Copyright Act extended the basic term for new works to the author’s life plus 50 years, whereas the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) extended the terms of all existing and future copyrights by an additional 20 years.
Generally speaking, any work published in the US prior to 1923 is now in the public domain, though recorded music going back to 1889 (the year in which Edison Records, then known as the North American Phonograph Co., released the first pre-recorded music on wax cylinder records) is now copyrighted due to the Music Modernization Act of 2018. Though all American music recordings going back to 1889 are potentially copyrightable under the Music Modernization Act, other works such as movies, comic books, etc. are not and the clock will start ticking again in 2020 when works made after 1924 will start trickling into the public domain.