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Copyright Basics

Copyright Basics

What is copyright?

Copyright provides an author with a property right in his or her original writings or other created material, which is secured for a period of time by law. Copyright owners hold the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, publish, perform and display their copyrighted work.

What can be copyrighted?

Copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression”, including works such as books, articles, poetry, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. The protection extends to both published and unpublished works.

Some works are NOT eligible for copyright protection, such as:

  • Works that have not been reduced to writing or some other tangible form of expression;
  • Title, names, short phrases and slogans; familiar symbols and designs; ornamentation; lettering and coloring; lists of ingredients or contents;
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries or devices;
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship, such as standard calendars, rulers and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources.

Who owns copyright?

Copyright in a work typically belongs to the author/creator of a work. Authors of a joint work are co-owners of the copyright in the work.

In the case of “works for hire”, copyright ownership will belong to an employer or other person for whom the work is prepared, rather than the author of the work. A work is considered a work for hire if it is (1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of her or his employment; or (2) a specially commissioned work where the parties expressly agree in a signed, written agreement that the work shall be considered a work for hire.

Please note that purchasing or owning a copy of a book, manuscript, DVD, CD, painting, or any other copy or photo record does not transfer ownership of the copyright for the content of that object to the buyer. The law provides that transfer of ownership of any material object that embodies a protected work does not of itself convey any rights in the copyright. The exclusive rights in the copyright remain with the copyright owner, unless the copyright owner transfers one or more of those rights through a copyright agreement, such as a license or assignment.

How long does copyright last?

Copyright provides protection during a limited period of time. It does not last forever. The duration of the copyright protection term will vary depending on the circumstances. For current works created by an individual, protection lasts for the life of the author, plus 70 years. For works for hire or works created anonymously or pseudonymously, protection lasts 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

Note that these methods for computing the duration of a copyright term only apply to works originally created on or after Jan. 1, 1978. For works published prior to 1978, determining the length of the copyright term can be more complicated and will depend on additional factors such as whether an appropriate copyright notice was included and whether the copyright registration was renewed when it was eligible for renewal.

What does “public domain” mean?

Works are considered to be in the “public domain” if the work is not eligible for copyright protection, has lost its copyright protection, or the protection term for the work has expired. Public domain works are able to be used by the public without requiring permission or authorization.

However, do not assume that a work is in the public domain without having sufficient confirmation that this is the case. Something is not public domain simply because it is posted online or does not have a copyright notice. Some works may contain material that is in the public domain, but other parts of the work may still be copyrighted. For example, some hymns include copyrighted lyrics paired with a public domain music arrangement or vice versa.

What is copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement occurs when someone reproduces, distributes, performs, publicly displays, or makes a derivative work of a copyrighted work without the permission of the copyright owner. Failure to get appropriate permission can lead to fines and litigation.

We have both a legal and a moral obligation to respect the rights of those who have created copyright materials. Failure to abide by copyright laws not only robs creators of a fair recompense for their work; it also puts you, your congregation and the church in legal jeopardy.

If you have any questions about whether copyright permission is needed or not, please err on the side of asking for permission.

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