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What is Copyright and Why Do We Need It?

Imagine if J.K. Rowling spent 17 years of her life writing the Harry Potter series just to see it made available online for free to whomever wanted to read it. That’s 17 years worth of salary that she would have forfeited. Copyright protection solves this problem. If Rowling did not have an incentive to own and control her work, who knows if we would have Harry Potter – a brand that has entertained millions and is now worth over $15 billion.

The purpose of copyright protection, as stated in the United States Constitution, is to promote the progress of science and useful arts (including the protection of Harry Potter). In fact, this is the only part of the Constitution that states a purpose behind a provision.

While a copyright exists automatically as soon as the work is in a fixed form, registration with the Copyright Office is necessary to protect the copyright in Court. Registration also allows a successful plaintiff to recover statutory damages and attorneys’ fees, which usually is a significant amount. 

Other than protection in Court, what does copyright registration mean for you? The owner of a copyright has several exclusive rights – including the right to reproduce the work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies of the work, to perform the work and to display the work publicly.

These rights grant the owner an exclusive monopoly over their work, subject to several limitations. First, the work must be copyrightable. Second, the copyright only protects the original aspects of authorship and creation. Next, there is a limited amount of time for copyright protection, and all works eventually enter the public domain. Lastly, the doctrine of “fair use” allows others to use a copyrighted work without permission under specific circumstances.

But if all original work is copyrighted, are musicians breaking the law by performing cover songs? And how can South Park legally recreate and mock an entire YouTube video in an episode?

We will take a deeper dive into these and other copyright issues in future blog posts.

Gary Brophy and Janise Marvin made substantial contributions to this post.

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Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.  

  • Copyright
  • Apr 22, 2015

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