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Copyright, put simply, is a personal monopoly on an original writing, song, piece of art, or a group of any of those, for 70 years after the death of the creator. If a corporation is the creator, the copyright monopoly lasts for 95 years.
Generally, copyright prevents others from being able to show, copy, perform, modify, or distribute the original work without the owner’s permission. The amount of control copyright gives to creators lets them charge more for their work, or determine how they want their works to be used.
As with most things in life, though, there are exceptions to the general rule of broad control. For instance, copyright does not trump free speech because as a society, we hold higher the right to uncensored communication than the monopoly rights of an artist.
Why do we have copyright?
The Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8) reads Congress shall have the power to:
promote the progress of science…by securing for limited times to authors…the exclusive right to their respective writings…
What does that mean? The easy answer is that scientists and artists alike, who enrich our society with their discoveries and works, are granted an additional incentive to innovate and create new works of art. It’s an exchange—share the work with society and society will allow you a limited monopoly. The goal is to disseminate ideas and enrich the public, while creating an incentive for the artist. After a limited time the artist’s monopoly would dissolve and the work would return completely to the public.
The concept of “returning” works to the public suggests that no new idea is truly new, that it is only built from some previous societal knowledge. Perhaps this return concept can be best understood through the words of Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The Constitution specifies, “limited times” to ensure that artists to not rest on their laurels but continue to innovate.
What are the limits of copyright?
Without limitations on the scope and application of copyright, it would be nearly impossible to share, resell, lend, or even talk about creative works. For instance, selling a used CD and lending a book to a friend both implicate the copyright owner’s exclusive right to distribute the work. Quoting from a news article or your favorite movie on a blog implicate the reproduction right. Singing aloud, or playing a radio so that others can hear implicates the performance right.
But instead of requiring us to get written permission from copyright owners in each of these cases, copyright law provides limitations and exceptions to creators’ rights, so that ordinary uses of the work aren’t hampered, and information and expression can flow freely.
For instance, the first sale doctrine says that once a particular copy of a work has been sold, the owner of that copy can distribute it however they want—reselling it, lending it out, or giving it away.
Fair use is another limitation to copyright, and a particularly flexible and useful one. Basically, fair use balances the creator’s need for protection against the user’s need to use the work without permission, taking into account whether this use will hurt the market for the original work. It is the primary (but not the only) way that the law balances copyright with the need to use copyrighted works when reporting news, conducting research, or criticizing or discussing works. It also allows for new, beneficial uses, like home recording.
These aren’t the only limitations and exceptions to copyright, just some of the more prominent ones. Other limitations deal more specifically with certain public performances, library uses of works, and other situations.
The exchange in copyright between the creator and the public—limited monopoly in return for certain usage rights—has been worked out over the years, and continues to evolve. But other, non-copyright laws have been springing up that control how the public can use copyrighted works, while remaining outside of the normal boundaries of copyright law. For example, there are specific anti-bootlegging laws that prohibit making video recordings in a movie theater. While this is already a violation of copyright, the anti-bootlegging law isn’t necessarily subject to the same exceptions and limitations as copyright law. Thus, someone recording a short clip and charged under the anti-bootlegging statute wouldn’t be able to claim fair use as a defense.
The anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA represent another example of this “para-copyright.” Although the DMCA is part of copyright law, circumventing DRM isn’t a copyright infringement, so the exceptions and limitations to copyright don’t apply. So even if a user circumvents DRM in order to make a fair use of a work, the circumvention is still illegal, even if the use isn’t.