Copyright Law Basics

What EXACTLY are Copyrights?

I will begin with a basic description of copyright law with a brief example. A Copyright is best described as a set of rights granted by the government for the expressions of ideas or information.

Quite literally, it is the set of rights the owner has to allow copies of the expression to be made.

Copyright law only covers these eight types of works:

(1) literary works;

(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;

(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;

(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;

(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;

(6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;

(7) sound recordings; and

(8) architectural works.

What rights does a copyright owner have?

“[T]he owner of copyright … has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:

(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;

(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;

(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;

(4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;

(5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and

(6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

(A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.)

Works created on or after January 1, 1978 have a copyright that lasts generally for 70 years after the life of the author. That means that the copyright expires 70 years after the author’s death. In the case of a joint work, the 70-year time period is measured after the last author’s death. In works that are made for hire, the term is 95 years from the date of its first publication, or 120 years from the date the work was created.

What is a “work for hire”? A work for hire is a work that falls under the copyright statue whose owner is not the person who created it. A work for hire must be made within the context of a written agreement that states the work is made for hire. Control and responsibility of the final version of the work rests not with the artist, but the person to whom control is ceded.

Now that you’re happy I cut-and-pasted straight from the Copyright Statute, let me give you an example – viral marketing. Any copyright owner is allowed to hold on to these rights as tightly as the owner wants to. The copyright owner can let any of these rights go, also.

What is a Viral Marketing campaign? Simple, it is a campaign where someone’s work is allowed to spread as much as possible (like a virus) so that people become interested in the work and then follow the work to the source. It is, basically, a free sample. It can be listening to 30 seconds of a song and telling friends to go hear the song. It can be one video being passed along so that people then go to the source of the video (a website that hosts that video and others or, for example, a TV show). This is something we are all familiar with. The earliest example I can think of is “South Park.” When I was in college, the video clip called “The Spirit of Christmas” was passed along from student to student via the Internet.

In a Viral Marketing campaign, the owner of the copyright in the work(s) has allowed some rights in the copyright(s) to be let go. Generally, it is allowing copies of the work to exist elsewhere and allowing others to distribute the work. All of this is done for no compensation, only to hope that compensation comes down the road in another form.


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