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Copyright Laws

Copyright laws protect original works of expression including, but not limited to, novels, short stories, fine and graphic arts, photographs, software, films, paintings, and recorded musical performances. For copyright laws to protect a work of expression, it must be original and an independent, creative effort of its author. Then, depending on when the work was created, the copyright law will protect it.

Copyright law has specific guidelines for the length of protection it provides to a copyright owner. There are five main categories:

1. Works published in the United States before 1923 are public domain.
2. Works published after 1922, but before 1978, are protected for 95 years since the date of publication.
3. Works created, but not published, before 1978 last the life of the author plus 70 years.
4. Works published after 1977 last for the life of the author plus 70 years.
5. Works published for employment, commission, anonymously, or while using a pseudonym, last between 95 to 120 years.

Copyright is a legal device an author has to control how his or her published work of art or literature is used. Copyright rights are solely for the author, unless he or she transfers those rights to another person. The Copyright Act of 1976 provides exclusive rights to the reproduction, distribution or adaptation of the works to the author. This act states a work must be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" or, in other words, the work must exist in some form, no matter how short the time frame or the format.

Copyright laws prevent the unlawful use of original works with the owner's written permission. If someone were to reproduce copyrighted material without the owner's written permission, the owner could sue. There are minor exceptions to this circumstance, for example, the fair use rule. The fair use rule, under copyright law, allows others to use another author's work without asking permission.

Using research information in a new work is an example of the fair use rule. Often it is imperative for an author to quote a short section in a scientific work to illustrate an observation. In addition, quoting a work in a review, to illustrate a point or to comment, is fair use. Professors and teachers use the fair use rule when photocopying text or excerpts for classroom assignments or readings.

Violations often occur when the use is motivated primarily by a desire for commercial gain. The fact that a work is published primarily for private commercial gain weighs against a finding of fair use. Unless the fair use rule clearly applies to a publication, you should review the owner's rights and request written permission.