A Brief Introduction to the Basics of Copyright Law
Although copyright is often overlooked in many duplication projects, it would be wise to consider the subject of ownership from the very beginning. Copyright laws exist to provide certain protections to those who create original designs, compositions, and other artistic works.
Copyright differs from other forms of protection like the patent and the trademark because it does not cover specific ideas and information, but rather the manner in which they are expressed. It is also worth noting that copyright laws are standardized on an international level and have been adopted by over 150 countries worldwide; in essence copyright laws are not specific to the country in which the work originated.
Copyright laws grant several exclusive rights to the copyright holder including control over reproduction of the work, importation and exportation, the creation of derivative works, the authority to sell or assign ownership to others, the public display and performance of a work, and the transmission of a work by radio or video. Because copyright laws are effective for extended periods of time (typically ninety-five years, or seventy years after the author's death), permission will certainly need to be obtained for almost all works produced after 1923.
Laws regarding the copyright of musical works are very specific with regards to covering or rearranging a work: permission from the author must always be obtained first. The same is applicable to musical compositions that use samples of another work, even if the duration is thirty seconds or less. The law is very clear on this matter and violations are taken seriously.
Additionally, copyright laws do not permit the reproduction of a copyrighted work, even if a copy of the work was obtained through legal means. Simply purchasing a record from a music store does not grant you a license to duplicate the work or create something derivative of it, despite acquiring the work legally. The same principle can also be applied to other situations, such as the use of unlicensed music in a wedding video or other project.
As a content producer, there are several steps that can be taken to protect the intellectual property rights to a work. First, be aware that works are copyrighted as soon as they are recorded or expressed in a tangible format. A declaration of copyright is recommended but is not required on works created after 1989. The ideal method for the reservation of intellectual property rights is to register a work with the United States Copyright Office through the Library of Congress. This can be accomplished by the completion of a brief form and remittance of a small fee.
Perhaps the most difficult part of copyright law is enforcing it. In pursuing legal action, the defendant must prove the accused has infringed on their copyright, whether knowingly or unknowingly. This is especially difficult in the computer age, where new technologies are adopted at a faster rate than laws governing their use. In some circumstances, laws may even be adopted that infringe upon existing rights such as fair use. With copyright, most cases are civil suits, which are typically settled in district courts. Many rulings have found that ignorance about copyright laws is no excuse for violation, so the best advice is to be prepared and consult an expert whenever necessary.
Obtaining permission to reproduce someone’s work is not as difficult a task as it may seem. The Harry Fox Agency in New York City can help you do just that. They work with artists, record labels, and copyright owners to ensure you get the proper licensing to duplicate, replicate, or record your materials legally. For artwork that uses a design similar to an existing product, talk to the copyright owner directly or the US Copyright Office. In this business, it is always better to ask permission first!
DISCLAIMER: This article was intended to provide a general overview of copyright law and is not a substitute for legal advice! Please consult a licensed attorney regarding any questions.