copyright, right granted by statute to the author or originator of certain literary, artistic, and musical productions whereby for a limited period of time he or she controls the use of the product. The work may be reproduced by the individual or by another licensed to do so by the individual. Royalties are paid on each performance of the work or each copy that is sold.

Copyrightable Materials

Literary matter, periodicals, maps, photographs, works of art, textile and other designs, sound recordings, musical compositions, photoplays, and radio and television programs are among the commodities that may be copyrighted. Material for copyright in the United States must be registered and deposited with the Library of Congress. The law makes special provision for the transmission of copyright material over cable television, jukeboxes, and public broadcasting stations. It also specifies circumstances under which the reproduction of copyrighted works by libraries and archives is permissible. Since 1980, computer software has been eligible for the same copyright protection as printed matter, and in 1984, a ten-year period of copyright protection was extended to semiconductor chips. The Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that neither the home use of television video recorders nor their manufacture violated the copyright laws.

The Bern and Universal Copyright Conventions

Copyrighting of foreign materials in the United States is a relatively recent development. After 1891, foreign language material was easily copyrighted in the United States; material in English, however, could not be copyrighted if it was imported, unless type was set and material printed and bound in the United States. Most of the major countries of the world, with the exception of the United States, adhered to the Bern Convention of 1887, which provided that literary material copyrighted in any signatory country automatically enjoys copyright in all the signatory countries.

The Universal Copyright Convention (UCC), which had as a main purpose the inclusion of the United States in a general system of international copyright, was signed at Geneva in 1952. It was accepted by the United States in 1954 and came into effect the following year. The U.S. copyright law was modified to conform to the convention, notably by elimination of procedural steps for the establishment of U.S. copyright in works published in other signatory countries and of the requirement that works in the English language by foreign authors be manufactured in the United States to obtain U.S. copyright protection. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) played a leading part in the negotiations for the UCC, which was revised in 1971. In 1989 the United States became a member of the Bern Convention, which was most recently revised in 1971. Most nations subscribe to the convention, and most of those who do not are parties to the UCC or members of the World Trade Organization, whose agreements cover copyright and other intellectual property rights.


Protection of rights in literary property did not appear necessary in Europe prior to the invention of printing from movable type in the 15th cent. The sovereign asserted control over printing by issuing patents or privileges to individuals or by organizing publishers' guilds with monopoly rights. Through such devices, the state was able to censor heresy and sedition, while at the same time fostering literature. The only protection that the common law extended to the author was against publication of the work without permission; once publication was allowed, the work passed completely out of the author's control.

The first English copyright act (1710), while maintaining the common-law right, allowed the author to copyright a work for 14 years (with a like period of renewal); it also required deposition of copies and a notice that the work was copyrighted. That law was the model for the earliest American copyright statute, passed in 1790. Wheaton v. Peters (1834; see Henry Wheaton) established that copyright exists primarily for the public benefit rather than for the creator of the work. The current copyright statute was enacted in 1976 and became effective in 1978, superseding an act of 1909. There have been significant amendments enacted since then, including a 1988 law that implemented the United State's accession to the Bern Convention and a 1994 law that implemented changes that resulted from the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which established the World Trade Organization). In most cases, the law provides copyright for the duration of the author's life plus 70 years.


See B. Kaplan, An Unhurried View of Copyright (1967); W. S. Strong, The Copyright Book (1986); H. G. Henn, Copyright Law (1988); J. M. Samuels, ed., Patent, Trademark, and Copyright Laws (1989); E. Samuels, The Illustrated Story of Copyright (2000).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Copyright: Selected full-text books and articles

How to Fix Copyright By William Patry Oxford University Press, 2011
Copyright and Multimedia Products: A Comparative Analysis By Irini A. Stamatoudi Cambridge University Press, 2002
Unfair Competition Law: The Protection of Intellectual and Industrial Creativity By Anselm Kamperman Sanders Clarendon Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: "Constructive Knowledge and Copyright" p. 186
Film Copyright in the European Union By Pascal Kamina Cambridge University Press, 2002
Publishing Law By Hugh Jones; Christopher Benson Routledge, 2002 (2nd edition)
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