The Copyright Act of 1976 provides copyright protection to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” However, copyright law does not protect ideas, facts, procedures, or discoveries. Copyright protection applies to the unique method wherein ideas or facts are expressed.

Generally, copyright protection is automatically provided at the moment a work (e.g., writing, painting, composition, sculpture) is fixed in a tangible form. However, one must register with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), if he/she wishes to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a United States work.

Generally, copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions or discoveries. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others.

The doctrine of “Fair Use” provides a limited defense to copyright infringement. It permits the use of a copyright-protected work for purposes such as commentary, criticism, teaching, scholarship, and research. Generally, courts should consider four factors in determining whether or not a particular use is fair: (i) purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (ii) nature of the copyrighted work; (iii) amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (iv) effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work. See Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.

The duration of a copyright is the life of the author of the work plus 70 years. However, for corporate-authored works (or works made-for-hire), the term is 95 years from the publication date, or 120 years from the creation date, whichever is less.

There are some statutory exemptions in certain situations. For example, organizations such as schools, libraries, broadcast stations and cable systems can use copyrighted work, or parts thereof, without consent or authorization from the copyright owner. The law permits libraries and archives, including school facilities, to distribute copyrighted works as lending materials. The law also allows libraries and archives to make one copy of each copyrighted work in their collection for non-commercial, preservation purposes. Preservation copies must be clearly marked with a notice that the copy was made under this portion of the copyright statute.

The fact that content in digital format can be easily reproduced and shared over the World-Wide-Web has led to predicaments related to copyright protection in the music and motion picture industries. In order to contest music file-sharing, record labels wanted relief from the distributors of file-sharing software. In 2002 the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decided that Napster was not entitled to immunity from copyright infringement liability under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (“DMCA”). For example, literature, music, motion pictures, artistic works, photographs, essays, articles, computer programs, graphic design, and sound recordings are some of the works that are protected by copyright. The court found Napster vicariously and contributorily liable for infringing copyrights of numerous recording companies.