COPYRIGHT 101 (The Basics)
Would it be alright for you to post your favorite episode of Curb your Enthusiasm (the TV Show) to your YouTube channel? How about taking a clip with your favorite punchline and posting it to your Instagram? The answer to both is NO. That would be copyright infringement of another’s rights.
For all my artist friends and clients out there, there is a lot of confusion regarding Copyright Law, so let’s cover the basics first.
Copyright law lasts a good long time, because they’re created by corporations, and offer protection for TV shows created since 1978 lasts for 95 years from first publication. For older shows, the Duration determination is a little more complex, but it's a safe bet that most television shows are still protected.
Think of your copyright as owning a car. It is your property, and if someone comes and borrows your car without first getting permission, that would be an issue, right? Right! The reason the government allows us to have exclusive ownership (as stated in the U.S. Constitution), is to promote the progress of “useful arts.” I guess the old guys, in all their wisdom, figured artists would be less likely to want to create something if anyone could exploit your creation without paying you. That makes sense! Then came along the internet, illegal downloading, and really, the monster that is the digital age… but we will save that discussion for another article.
So going back to the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode as our example (can you tell I like that show yet?), or applying the information below to your creative work, the owner of that episode (i.e., the copyright holder), has a set of exclusive rights. Those rights are:
1. The right to make copies. You are the only one who can manufacture copies of your episode for sale, publish it, put it on Amazon, or otherwise make copies (unless you specifically give someone else permission to do so).
2. The right to distribute copies. The above exclusive right allows you to make copies of your episode, but this right specifically gives the right of distribution to only you. If you allow someone to make copies of your episode, it does not mean they can also distribute those copies. These are separate rights entirely.
3. The right to display or perform the work in public. Let’s switch examples here (for my more music-oriented readers), with a song, this right covers the performance of the song at venues, on the radio, television, in bars, elevators, or anywhere else someone can hear your song publicly. The “display” function can be more easily described for artists who put their paintings, statues, and the like on public display, or even within the music realm, to put your music on your website that displays lyrics.
4. The right to make derivative works based upon the original. Keeping with the music example, a derivative work is another song based on your original song. A good example today is a remix. If someone creates a remix of one of my Miss Krystle tunes, that remix is nonetheless a new, separate work, even though the remixer will likely use vocals from my original work. Although the remixer would have copyright in the original elements of her remix, she nonetheless needs to get my permission to create and sell her remix.
So what does this all mean? As a copyright holder, this means you have the above rights exclusively, unless you expressly give someone else permission otherwise. Feels good, right?
Common Myth 1: you have to obtain a formal copyright registration to have protection of your original creative work.
Answer: It may come as surprise to most of you, but when you render your creative ideas into a tangible medium, you get immediate copyright protection for that work. In other words, your work is copyrightable if it is original (so not copied form something else), has a minimal amount of creativity (this is a very low threshold), and has been rendered into a tangible medium (something physical …. pen to paper, voice to recorder, both are examples of “tangible” copies).
Common Myth 2: Copyright covers all aspects of your creation.
Answer: Although the threshold is very low, there must nonetheless be a sufficient amount of original authorship for there to be copyright protection. So let’s use a book for this final example. Although your book is copyrightable, some parts of your book may not be. For example, copyrights generally do not cover one-line quotes or titles of books, because there is not a sufficient amount of originality to protect under Copyright Law. Given that the title of your book is only a tiny fraction of the whole book, it enjoys no separate protection when separated from the whole. Also, if someone quotes a one-liner from your book, they probably have not infringed your copyright.
Thanks for reading this Copyright 101 article. Have a question you want answered? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I might include the answer to your question in my next article!