Copyright: What You Need to Know • Purpose of Copyright Law

When I ask groups that I teach or speak to what the purpose of copyright law is, usually the first and most common answer that I get is to protect the rights of copyright owners. That's not actually correct. In reality the purpose of copyright law is stated in the U.S. Constitution which says that Congress may make laws for the purpose of promoting the progress of science and the arts by securing to authors and inventors for limited times the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries. So the purpose of copyright law is actually to promote the progress of science and the art or another way of saying that is to encourage the creation of new works, or to grow the body of human knowledge that's out there and the way we do this for the Constitution is by, on the one hand, granting creators exclusive rights and their works to incentivize them to create, but on the other hand putting some limitations on those rights so that others can build upon those works and themselves create and contribute to that growth of new works.

So copyright law is really all about maintaining a balance between protecting the rights of copyright owners and putting some limitations on those rights or another way of looking at that is protecting the rights of users of copyright protected works. So on the one hand of the scale, if you think about it as a scale, on one hand of the scale is the rights of the copyright owners and those include the obvious, the right to make reproductions or to copy the work, the right to create derivatives of a work and a derivative is a work that is based on an existing work, so a translation is a derivative, a new edition to a book, a movie that's based on a book, those are all derivative works, the right to distribute works to the public whether it's in exchange for money or not, and the right to publicly perform or display the work, depending on the nature of the work. These are the rights of the copyright owner.

There are two categories of limitations on those rights. One is the existence of a public domain and public domain is a term of art. I want to take a moment to explain what it means in a copyright context because it's used differently in different situations or different contexts. In the copyright context, public domain refers to works that are not protected by copyright, whether they're available to the public, accessible by the public or not. So there are two types of works, basically categories that fall into the public domain, either works that are not protected because they don't meet the threshold requirements of copyright protection and those are that a work be a work of original authorship and original doesn't mean that's never been done before, but original as in originating from that author, that person who's claiming to have created it. So the first requirement for copyright protection is that it be an original work of authorship and related to that is that the work contain a modicum of creativity. What that means is that the author has created something, has actually put something from his own little head into that work, not just repeated something that's already out there. So low standard modicum of creativity and then finally that the work be fixed in a tangible medium of expression, that's the language from the copyright statute and what it really means is just that it'd be perceivable whether through use of a machine or device or not for more than a flash in time. So when you have a conversation with someone, your words are not protected by copyright unless someone is recording them in which case the recording is protected. So if a work does not meet all of these requirements then it cannot be protected by copyright and is therefore in the public domain.

The other category of works in the public domain are works on which the term of copyright has expired. Under the current law, the term is life of the author plus 70 years or for work made for hire, 95 years from publication, but the term of protection has changed many times over the 200 year history of the copyright law, so for any given work you may have to do a little bit of research to determine how long a copyright lasts. So the other category of limitations on a copyright owner's rights are for protected works limitations on the owner's right to control certain types of uses of those works. We have a few limitations that are listed in the Copyright Act, in the statute itself and those include for librarians section 108 which applies to libraries and archives only. There are other specific limitations, statutory limitations that apply to very specific situations like giving a mom and pop size business the right to play music publicly, but there are very few statutory limitations and they're very narrow in scope so for everything else that we want to do with a work, we have this big- it's not a big category necessarily of fair use, but this big tool of fair use. That is probably the single biggest limitation on a copyright owner's rights and we will talk about that in a different lesson so the takeaway here is to remember that the purpose of copyright law is to maintain a balance between the rights of a copyright owner to control the work and on the other hand putting limits on those rights so that others may use the protected work.

This lesson is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information regarding application of copyright law in schools. Nothing in this lesson is intended to constitute legal advice, and nothing herein should be considered legal advice. If legal advice is required, the reader should consult a licensed attorney in his or her own state. Neither ABC-CLIO, LLC, nor the author makes any warranties or representations concerning the information contained in this lesson or the use to which it is put.

MLA Citation McCord, Gretchen. "Copyright: What You Need to Know: Purpose of Copyright Law ." School Library Connection, September 2015,

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Entry ID: 1980786

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