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Topic Primer: Copyright

Formerly the domain of the author(s), the publisher, and the government, in the U.S., as in many former British colonies, copyright is NOT an inalienable (“god-given”) right: it is granted by the U.S. Constitution as a right to be defined by Congress (U.S. Constitution. Article I Section 8. Clause 8 – Patent and Copyright Clause of the Constitution. [The Congress shall have power] “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” July 4, 1788). The framers of the Constitution believed that democracy was best served by the flow of information to all. Consequently, they formed the law of the land so that an author had responsibility for their work—and in return for federal protection—could then claim rewards (fame, money, citation) from it for only a limited time after their intellectual property had been put into a fixed form (usually hand writing on paper before set in print on paper) . Authors then granted their copyright by contractual agreement or by specific license to publishers; publishers in turn legally protected the copyrights they held. The government set the particulars on how long and what constituted a copyright as well as the monetary fines for violating it.

Over time, Congress lengthened the time to span across generations and provided additional interpretations of copyright. Copyright in the U.S. is administered by the Library of Congress, not the Executive branch. The Library of Congress Copyright Office maintains a detailed website, including circulars and educational information on practices (such as fair use) at https://www.copyright.gov/circs/ . Circular 1: Copyright Basics, at Circ01(2)[pdf], is a MUST READ for every author and artist.

No such thing as “international copyright” exists. Each country is responsible for formulating its law on copyright; international conventions that govern copyright are listed and discussed at https://www.copyright.gov/international-issues/ . Every author should know and understand the basics of copyright in their home country.

“Formerly” is used above with reference to digital or print publication prior to the emergence of the Internet in the 1983-1990 years. The world of copyright in the United States changed dramatically after the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976 (Pub. Law 94-553, 10/19/78) which substantially revised earlier law, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA, PL-105-304, 10/28/98), which with amendments contains today’s copyright law (Scroll down to see the law’s compilation at https://www.copyright.gov/title17/ )

In a subsequent post, the emergence of businesses that deal in copyright management will be examined.

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